Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why I Eyes Ya - catalogue essay by Roger Nelson


Cats can live without people but some people can’t live without cats.

WHY I EYES YA manifests a complex and unique collaboration: Lucy and Tai each do their work, obsessively and alone, and then come together to show and tell. They swap ideas, correct each other’s mistakes, tell each other ‘more of this’ or ‘less of that’, ‘that’s too gross’ or ‘make it grosser.’ Following this, they return to their separate studios, back to their solitary and obsessive work, collecting books and magazines to cut and paste, while keeping in touch by sending each other links to kooky online videos, cutesy photo-blogs, creepy fan-sites and other feline flotsam and jetsam.

For Lucy and Tai, a self-consciously cultivated yet sincerely instinctive obsession with cats and the craziness of cat lovers is interbred with a careful yet intuitive emphasis on collage. A casual but keen interest in the proliferation of online memes meets a subtle yet insistent blurring of the line between processes and products. The discourse of the collaboration is as important to them as the pin-boards adorned with their combined constructions. Before WHY I EYES YA, these peculiar collages of cats were Lucy’s and Tai’s private passions. The artists saw this activity as separate from their ‘proper’ practice: as somehow too strange and silly for public or professional presentation. But just as homemade pet videos ‘go viral’ when their often rather hapless makers post them online, so too this bit of fun grew to become a fixation and a focus for the artists’ work.

In her 2011 novel A Summer Without Men, Siri Hustvedt writes of Abigail, an elderly woman whose seemingly lovely, lacy embroidered quilts, tablecloths and tea-cosies contain hidden details of deviance and transgression. Floral patterns conceal miniaturised and disguised scenes of sex and masturbation, violent retributions and feminist rebellion. Lucy and Tai do not seek to hide their deviant impulses: the ‘wrongness’ of the images they select and the compositions they arrange is made manifestly apparent. But their work shares with the fictional Abigail’s a sense of defiant humour and subversion of sociological stereotypes. Abigail’s ‘private amusements’ wryly explode the fantasy of the sweet little old lady: for her, needlework is a potent means of creative expression, not merely a decorative pastime taken up to please.

Even more so than needlework, cat-loving is an obsession that is inseparable in the popular imagination from a kind of solitary, spinsterish femininity. In writing this essay, I collected from friends and acquaintances many dozens of stories of eccentric aunts and odd neighbours: women whose cats suckle at their earlobes and at the folds of skin around their neck, women who feed their cats fresh oysters by candlelight, women whose muscles are atrophied from years of sleeping in a bed overtaken by a dozen purring animals, women whose meagre incomes are spent almost entirely on veterinary care and toy mice on strings. In the stories I was told, these women are never partnered, and are never professional: their personhood is imagined as incomplete, and their emotional life as tragically (if comically) stunted and sick. (Thanks to the rich and curdled mass of cat tales I was told, this essay too is something of a collaboration.) It is invariably assumed that some woeful betrayal or terrible trauma must have made these women what they are: crazy cat ladies, so lonely without a man or a mission in life that they surround themselves with animals that will be loyal and will tolerate their love.

But a love of cats is, of course, not always so wild or extreme. To witter about a pet is socially acceptable in a way that to gush about a partner or spouse is not. In the right kind of moderation, cat-loving is seen as a sign of a warm and gentle nature. Lucy and Tai are as interested in this kind of controlled emotional transference as they are in the fanatical extremes of crazy cat ladies. In focusing on creatures posed at awkward angles or in wacky surrounds, they test the limits of what we can find cute; revealing that what ought to be sweet very often turns out to be quite sick. The artists are fascinated by the most bizarre feline breeds: wrinkle-skinned hairless cats that must be kept out of sunlight, creatures too in-bred and genetically deformed to be able to walk more than a few metres, even one ‘pure-bred’ unable to drink from anything but a running stream of cool water.

WHY I EYES YA treads the boundaries between the cute and the creepy, the seductive and the sinister; the exhibition presents two artists’ private obsessions for public consumption in a context that questions whether their work should be appreciated for its conceptual challenges or its technical charms. The work is a hybrid of the analogue, homey and handmade with the digitally global and anonymous. It is captivating and seductive in its often sickening weirdness. Lucy James and Tai Snaith may not be crazy cat ladies, but they are every bit as hilarious, as kooky and as compulsively obsessed.

In perhaps the strangest quirk of all, they are also truly warm, sane, kind and clever people—and they each possess perhaps rather surprisingly well-developed social skills. Say hi, show them your cat photos, maybe even introduce them to your cats. You know you want to—and they know you want to, too.

Roger Nelson

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