Catbox Contemporary: It Looks Different in Person

by Paddy Johnson on September 27, 2017 Feature

Irena Jurek, "Dirty Little Secret", installation view

Irena Jurek, “Dirty Little Secret”, installation view

The idea for Catbox Contemporary had been percolating for years. Founder and artist Philip Hinge hatched the idea of starting a miniature gallery just after he finished grad school at VCU in 2014. The plan was to launch exhibitions inside one of two kitty apartments in his cat tree. But it wasn’t until January 2017 that he opened the gallery in his Ridgewood apartment.

“[In the beginning], people didn’t realize it was in a small space,” Hinge told me. I was no different. When I first saw the photographs documenting Irena Jurek’s current show, I assumed the gallery was in a 800 square foot atrium space. (In reality, it’s approximately 12 inches high and 15 inches wide.) “It’s validating for the artist to feel like they have access to high end real estate,” Hinge continued. “They read like big budget shows, but they’re actually miniature.” Shows, which are not always cat-themed, have included wall to wall wallpaper and carpeting, cut steel sculptures and quilted hangings—all of which would be too costly to produce on a large scale without the support of a large gallery. 

Hinge was careful about how he presented the project to artists. He told me he worried he would offend artists by essentially saying to them, “Please, take your work and shrink it down so it can fit in my cat tree.” But, people seemed to get the concept immediately and the project quickly took off.  Show openings, for example, have been growing in size, and viewing appointments have steadily increased. What began as a gallery that attracted one appointment a week now hosts six to seven.

A couple of factors contribute to the gallery’s growing following beyond the catchy conceit. Amongst the more banal may simply be Catbox Contemporary’s unusual opening reception hours, which always take place on a Sunday afternoon between 2 and 6 PM. They work because they don’t compete with the usual 6-8 PM opening times at commercial galleries and match an average artist or viewer’s schedule. (Hinge tells me they also keep the neighbors happy.)

Herding Cats, installation view

Herding Cats, installation view

More importantly, though, the exhibitions have been varied and strong. This summer, for example, Hinge curated his first big summer group show, “Herding Cats”. The exhibition included work by both established artists such as David Humphrey, Holly Coulis, and Alicia Gibson, and rising stars like Allison Evans, Halsey Hathaway, and Nick Irzyk. Allotting each artist 3×5 inches of space, the salon hanging included a mix of colorful painted abstraction, collage, and line drawings. Additionally, Hinge created a 5.5 x 8.5 inch zine catalogue with to scale reproductions which was available for free at the opening.

More recently, Irena Jurek took over the space with her show, “Dirty Little Secret”. (It’s on view through October 15th.) The exhibition resembles the kind of blockbuster show you might see at Gagosian or David Zwirner (only smaller). It looks magnificent. In large part this has to do with the attention Jurek gave to space, fully transforming it into a lush art viewing environment. Jurek papered the walls in hot pink and installed velour royal blue carpet on the floor. Inside a sitting nude cat woman statue made of putty and glazed white poses seductively, surrounded by a painting of a drooling dancing strawberry and three assemblage wall works. The assemblage resembles the kind of John Chamberlain sculptures I imagine he’d make if he worked with plastic salvaged from dollar stores not scrap yards. (One is coated in red enamel paint and adorned with colored cotton balls.)

Even though, online, shows like this one are designed to look competitive with blue chip galleries, I enjoyed the physical experience of visiting the gallery. In this case, the cliche of “the art looks different in person” really is true. It’s smaller and more intimate. The lighting, which is a clamp light placed on top of the kitty apartment, spills out of the open entrance and illuminates the walls as if glowing. It’s literally located inside someone’s apartment, making the experience feel unique and special. (That said, those allergic to cats should beware. An actual cat lives in the apartment.)

In short, the shows are worth checking out. Hinge tells me he has three exhibitions planned for the future so there’s plenty more programming in the works—including a rumored project space in the cat tree’s smaller second apartment. I was cautioned not to get my hopes up too high for the new space, though. “I don’t want to do it too soon,” Hinge said. “We’re far away from that now—at least a couple of years.”

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