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Painting cats galore

A selection of Campbell Kneale’s cat paintings. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Feline paintings bring abundant joy to world

Erin Kavanagh-Hall

When the world started falling apart in 2020, Featherston artist Campbell Kneale was in dire need of a laugh.

So, he started painting cats – in all their jittery, contemptuous, eccentric glory.

What started as a welcome distraction from a global health and social justice crisis has become something of a phenomenon: Campbell’s cat paintings have not only been a hit in his hometown but have been in hot demand around the world.

Campbell, a long-time painter and experimental musician, started sharing his creations on Facebook last May. He would post the image and the music he was listening to while painting – for example, “Motley Crue, painting cats.”

The cats in question had plenty of character, casting withering glances, caught in undignified poses while bathing, foul-tempered inside “cones of shame”, and taking in the world with startled, bulging eyes.

Painted while listening to Donna Summer.

As cat pictures on the internet tend to do, Campbell’s artworks went viral.

With his inbox flooded with commission requests, and cats shipped off as far away as the US, Japan, Denmark, Italy and Ukraine [“and heaps to Dunedin”], he was eventually able to devote himself full time to cat paintings.

He even has an alias – dubbed “Catman” by his fellow Featherston residents.

“I like to think Catman is a banal superhero,” Campbell said.

“He’s my alter ego, Campbell just does a lot of rubbish, while Catman is a champion of kitsch; an unapologetic symbol of modern-day banality and irreverence.”

Catman first emerged towards the end of last year’s lockdown – feeling overwhelmed by news coverage of the pandemic, Campbell did some therapeutic scribbling and drew some cats in his notebook.

“They were so silly – I laughed until I teared up. It was a lovely detox.

“I went ahead and painted a cat and put it on my Facebook.

I got a message saying, ‘I love the cat, can I buy it?’

“It raised my eyebrows a bit. But I painted another cat, and someone else wanted it.

“And so it began. There’s nothing clever about it – I listen to music and paint cats. And yet, it’s been huge.”

Campbell has been a keen painter since his youth and spent several years working as a secondary school art teacher.

He specialised in art with a socio-political message, critiquing consumerism, structural inequalities, and toxic media culture.

He was best known to music fans for his ambient punk project Birchville Cat Motel, which toured Asia, America, Europe and Australia.

When covid-19 hit, Campbell, isolating at home during lockdown unable to travel, found himself questioning how to respond to the unfolding global catastrophe as an artist.

“I was glued to the news. There was so much going on – the pandemic, the climate situation, economic crises, gross inequalities, the terrible ways privileged countries were managing covid-19.

“I thought about how to respond [artistically] – and I concluded that the world doesn’t need any more white, male, middle-aged, middle-class voices like mine clogging up the conversation.

“We need to step back and let the creative voices of marginalised communities, such as people of colour, LGBTQ+, and youth, be heard and amplified.

Painted while listening to Caveman Cult.

“It was time for me to shut up and start listening. So, I thought ‘f*** it, I’m going to paint a cat’.”

When painting his famous felines, Campbell used “regular old acrylics” and paints with a darker colour palette – playing on cats’ reputation in folklore as “shadowy creatures of the night”.

In his work, he aimed to capture both the magnificence and absurdity of his subjects – “dark gods”, who were not above pulling ridiculous faces.

“I don’t want to paint pretty cats. Cats are not decor; they have their own identities.

“I like to paint them snarky, neurotic, a bit off-kilter – with one eye bigger than the other, tongue out, one fang visible.

“They’re fun to paint because they’re totally unbalanced yet, at the same time, so majestic. They have that supremacist attitude – they demand subservience.”

He also enjoys sharing his painting soundtrack with the world, which includes “a lot of gnarly, antisocial protest music”, such as black metal, punk, noise, and free jazz.

“And a bit of Donna Summer, for fun.”

Campbell said many of his cats come from his imagination, but he had also been inundated with requests from cat lovers, hoping to see their pets get the Catman treatment.

He said he had been heartened by the feedback his cats have received.

“I’ve had customers say they cried as soon as they opened their painting.

“I thought, ‘oh my god, I made someone happy’.”

“In the art world, it’s utterly blasphemous to paint something as ‘normal’ as cats. But I decided to create a new normal for myself and paint things that make me and others laugh.

“It’s been a delightful little experiment.”

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