WELLESLEY — Artists have always made use of cats and the metaphors they suggest. Feline deities appear in Chinese, Japanese, and ancient Egyptian art. Leonardo da Vinci and Paul Gauguin sketched feline grace. The black cat in Édouard Manet’s “Olympia” may symbolize prostitution.
What do cats mean now, in the heyday of cat videos, as demands for animal rights grow? The feline-centric exhibition “A Cat May Look” examines that question at Wellesley College’s Jewett Art Gallery.
There are several portraits, which is too bad, because a cat portrait cannot get under the skin of the sitter. Good portraits convey the tension between posing and revealing in a subject. Cats may preen, but they don’t fuss about what others will see in pictures of them.
Many works, though, cleverly use cats to explore bigger ideas. Carl Vestweber collages images of feline heads onto human bodies — and achieves just that tension between posturing and vulnerability we’re missing in the portraits. In “Family Tension,” a prim cat family in church attire gazes at a pink, polka-dotted, ray-emitting tower. They remain composed, yet their eyes widen and their big ears prick up. Any moment all hell will break loose.
A cat sprawling on a bed anchors Sarah Malakoff’s “Untitled Interior (fur wall),” setting off the odd white fur wallpaper and the low, warm light. The coziness of the scene plays against the blue chill of a winter twilight out the window and the cat’s splayed, spent posture.
John Neylan’s weirdly alluring video “My Life as a Cat” borrows the darting turns and punchy aesthetic of “Grand Theft Auto” to follow a fat gray tiger cat on the prowl. The graphics are hypnotic, and the determined hunter a more compelling avatar than the stereotypical characters in many video games.
We see ourselves in these felines, but cats don’t care what they signify to us. That’s why they seem mysterious. And why, in art, they’re better subjects than dogs.
A CAT MAY LOOK
At Jewett Art Gallery, Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley, through Aug. 10. 781-283-2044, www.facebook.com/jewettgallery/Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.