By Olivia B. Waxman
January 23, 2014

Images of Cats are, by nature, Adorable. Millions of online felinophiles flock to videos of cats riding Roombas, napping in unlikely places and looking grumpier than Dick Cheney at a MoveOn rally. So when the notion of cat art comes up, it’s rarely taken seriously–except at 101/exhibit, a Los Angeles gallery that has gathered more than 100 works by 77 contemporary artists in the appropriately named “Cat Art Show Los Angeles,” opening Jan. 25.

These are not, however, the cuddly furballs of web memes and hang in there posters. One of the most evocative images at the gallery is Radical Cat, a work of spray paint and collage by Shepard Fairey, creator of the Hope poster that became a symbol of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He reimagines a black cat as a Black Panther Party member because, he tells TIME, “black cats have been unfairly vilified.”

Elsewhere, photographer Steve Schapiro, who documented the Godfather trilogy behind the scenes, contributes an image of Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone stroking a gray cat. Marc Dennis includes another celebrity in his painting A Great Big Giant World, which depicts the rapper Snoop Dogg (a.k.a. Snoop Lion) in a velvet jacket, gazing at a framed portrait of a kitten–a comment on the Internet’s fascination with felines. The blue-and-white background is inspired by the symbols of Snoop’s former gang, the Crips, a curious juxtaposition of his rough past and the soft, innocent-looking creature, according to “Cat Art Show Los Angeles” curator Susan Michals.

Fairey’s cat sports the Panthers’ signature turtleneck and black leather jacket with a sticker of a raised paw, an homage to the black-power salute. The background is textured with news clippings and quotations that draw out the connection, including a reference to former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover: “Hoover had it out for them radical cats.” Fairey says he wanted to portray how “aspects of independence can be celebrated by some and be seen as terrifying to others.”

Cat likenesses can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where they were associated with the sun god Ra because cats love warmth and have a dual nature–caring and protective yet ferocious and dangerous, says Yekaterina Barbash, curator of the Brooklyn Museum’s “Divine Felines” exhibit. In Lorenzo Lotto’s Renaissance-era work The Annunciation, a cat flees from God and the archangel Gabriel, reflecting the Virgin Mary’s fear upon learning that she would have a son, according to The Cat: 3500 Years of the Cat in Art by former Art Quarterly editor Caroline Bugler. In the 19th century, Édouard Manet put a black cat at the foot of a prostitute’s bed–arguably a metaphor for female genitalia.

Not everything in “Cat Art Show Los Angeles” is so serious. Mattia Biagi’s Black Cat is a stuffed feline, fangs bared, that circulates around the gallery on–yes–a Roomba. Rob Reger’s 40 Cats in 4 Directions spins around to create the optical illusion of another cat.

Michals, the curator, hopes the exhibit, which benefits the Stray Cat Alliance in Los Angeles, engages both the artsy elite and lovers of all things catty, who may never go to galleries. “If a cat is the way to get them to look at different forms of art,” she says, “then that’s how I have to do it.”

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com.

This appears in the February 03, 2014 issue of TIME.

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