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Michael Caines and the Unbearable Weight of Genius Cat Art cover

Michael Caines and the Unbearable Weight of Genius Cat Art

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post ran in 2023. We’re publishing this update in honor of our April 2024 exhibition, The Metamorphosis, which includes work from Michael Caines.

Late in 2022 crowds of cat-eared animal enthusiasts descended upon Pasadena’s Convention Center, prepared for the immersive two-day experience that is CatCon. Part symposium, part expo, the annual event educates and inspires thousands of fans with groundbreaking, cat-centric ideas and projects. Did we mention there’s plenty of artwork, too?

Tucked among the booths of rescue kittens, educational pamphlets, and cat-shaped backpacks, a small pop-up installation with a grand idea opened its doors to the public. Featuring seven original works, Untamed: The Unbearable Weight of Genius Cat Art was inspired by the enduring friendship between Nicolas Cage and Merlin, the actor’s Maine Coon cat. One of these works—appropriately titled “Merlin”—traveled from the studio of New York-based painter Michael Caines, who often incorporates pampered cats into his paintings of European royalty. “The animals portrayed in [my] paintings are intended to serve as surrogates for the avarice and hubris of those who hold power,” Michael says. By both cropping and lowering the focal point of his work, Michael moves the viewer’s perspective from human to small animal—be it cat, dog, or cock.

New York-based artist Michael Caines joins the ranks of CatCon with a painting that celebrates the friendship between Nicolas Cage and his cat, Merlin.
‘George’
New York-based artist Michael Caines joins the ranks of CatCon with a painting that celebrates the friendship between Nicolas Cage and his cat, Merlin.
‘George’ (detail)

Acting as “avatars of our desires,” the animals in Michael’s work are as plump, spoiled, and well-groomed as their aristocratic owners. His paintings are realistic recreations of famous portraits of royals like George I and Louis XIV, works that feel instantly familiar to anyone with a standard Western education. “My current paintings satirically critique the subjects of power and privilege,” he says, now viewing much of art history as the byproduct of European wealth and colonization. “[These are] works I both admire and recognize as symbolic iterations of class privilege and colonial oppression.”

Still, Michael finds much to celebrate in the fur-lined robes and gilded rooms that fill his paintings. There is pure aesthetic pleasure found in ruffled bedding, luxurious silk brocade, the light as it bounces from one gold surface to the next. Reconsidering the past by way of the present, Michael strives to “smuggle a sharp point beneath layers of silk and fur.” Me-ow.

Scroll through to see Michael’s work, then head to our April 2024 exhibition, The Metamorphosis, to see his submission, “Sphinx.”

Acting as “avatars of our desires,” the animals in Michael’s paintings are as plump, spoiled, and well-groomed as their aristocratic owners.

New York-based artist Michael Caines joins the ranks of CatCon with a painting that celebrates the friendship between Nicolas Cage and his cat, Merlin.
‘The Adoration’
New York-based artist Michael Caines joins the ranks of CatCon with a painting that celebrates the friendship between Nicolas Cage and his cat, Merlin.
‘Empire’
New York-based artist Michael Caines joins the ranks of CatCon with a painting that celebrates the friendship between Nicolas Cage and his cat, Merlin.
‘Fighting History’
New York-based artist Michael Caines joins the ranks of CatCon with a painting that celebrates the friendship between Nicolas Cage and his cat, Merlin.
‘Cock’
‘Hushi’
‘Khorasan’
‘Khorasan’ (detail)
‘Louis’
‘Merlin’
‘MinOrca’

Michael Caines: Website | Instagram | Facebook

All photos published with permission of the artist(s).

Want to be featured on NOT REAL ART? Email editor@notrealart.com with a short introduction and a link to your online portfolio or three images of your work.

Morgan  Laurens 

Morgan Laurens (she/her/hers) is NOT REAL ART’s editor in chief. Morgan is an arts writer from the Midwest who enjoys saying “excuse me” when no actual pardon is needed. She specializes in grant writing and narrative-based storytelling for mission-driven artists and arts organizations. With a background in printmaking, pop culture, and classic literature, Morgan believes a girl’s best friend is the pile of books on her bedside table.

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