Politics, activism and cool cats by artist Meredith Stern at AS220 Project Space Favorite 



Feb 1 2020

“I really wanted to highlight the strength of the human condition. When we work together we’re stronger,” Meredith Stern says of her exhibition “Cooperation Cats: 10 years, 20 prints” at AS220’s Project Space, 93 Mathewson St., Providence, from Feb. 1 to 29.

The show features 20 hand-printed, relief-cut images—linocuts sometimes with woodcut layers or spray-paint—of cats as people collaborating, “from building together to eating dinner together, protesting, engaged in various social actions.” (The exhibition also includes her porcelain ceramic mugs, teapots and jugs as 32 offset prints from her 2016 and ’17 series illustrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

The series was partly inspired by a stay in Brooklyn with the artist Josh MacPhee of the Just Seeds activist printmaking cooperative, of which Stern is a member. A 10-year-old girl spilled something on the floor. MacPhee got a broom and the girl grabbed a dustpan. “Together they cleaned up the mess,” Stern recalls. “I just realized I hadn’t seen that before. … This is a perfect example of a small way in which the idea of mutual aid and cooperation happens in a normalized way. If we’re going to think about mutual aid and what it means to thrive together, it comes down to the very smallest of acts—cleaning up together.”

And it was a way to model that social change comes not only through “mass actions and large movements, it’s about changing things on a small level,” Stern says. “Also, I think that’s a way we can not feel totally overwhelmed.”

Cats became her stand-ins for people because “I wanted to highlight social issues without the specificity of identity,” the Providence artist says. Also, “cats are fiercely independent, but do also rely on us when we’re cohabitating to feed them. The relationship between the individual and the collective is evident in our relationship with cats.” And, well, Stern is just a fan, especially of her two kitties—Gandalf and Zorro.

One of the first prints in the “Cooperation Cats” series was her best selling print of the year when she made it. Which got her thinking that “maybe I can put cats together with social justice and it’s not a ridiculous thing. I realized maybe it was a way to be more subtle and draw people into the issue. … It was a way to play with collaboration in less didactic ways,” Stern says. “People who like cats were also entering into the work.”

Prints in the “Cooperation Cats” series are reduction prints—in which each of the three to nine layers of color are printed from the same block as it’s carved away more and more. The artworks depict cat-people foraging for mushrooms, mending a quilt, paddling a canoe, planting seedlings, harvesting grain, washing dishes, shoveling out the walkway of their home after a snowstorm. A cat lies in bed after giving birth to two kittens with the help of a midwife and doula. Two parent-cats and their kitten (in a diaper) make challah bread. A parent-cat combs a child-cat’s hair. Carpenter-cats frame the roof of a barn they are building with a wood beam that reads: “We build a new world together.”

“There’s a lot of calling out of the injustices of the world,” Stern says. “It’s a lot easier to call out what is wrong or what the injustices are than to celebrate what is or what could be, to show an alternative.” “Cooperation Cats” grew out of a desire to find “a way to model mutual aid in a way that makes people think I could do that? … When people have a model for something it’s easier to envision it and then be it.”

True confession: When it comes to household pets, I’m more of a dog person than a cat person. But after seeing Meredith Stern’s feline-filled show at the AS220 Project Space, I’m seriously considering changing my allegiances. Indeed, in Stern’s richly expressive prints and collages, cats assume a variety of roles — as political agitators, environmental guardians and spiritual guides — that many humans might find challenging. If these super-cats had a motto, it might be “Why chase mice all day when you could be out saving the world?”

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