The afterlives of cats

Denise Rouleau looks at life — and death — through the eyes of a cat

Denise Rouleau’s “Terra Gatto Warriors” each stand about 3 feet tall and have unique, individually sculpted heads. Credit: Submitted Photo

Beware the runaway pun.

Or just run with it, as the artist Denise Rouleau has with her “Art of the Catacombs” series, an ongoing collaboration with studio partner Mark Roberts involving hundreds — or actually thousands, by this point — of miniature clay mummies arranged in vintage wooden typeface boxes. When, several years ago, Roberts asked Rouleau to sculpt a cat figurine for another project, they were tickled by the play on words, and pretty soon one of the typeface boxes had all of its little cubbyholes filled with cat mummies. They called it “Cat-acomb.”

It’s a pun with historical precedent. The ancient Egyptians didn’t just mummify pharaohs but also animals, including many cats. In another part of the world, not long before Egypt’s last dynasty fell and it was annexed by the Roman Empire, the Chinese emperor Qin Shihuang was buried with hundreds of life-size clay figures, a terracotta army to serve him in the afterlife.

Were any of those terracotta warriors cats? 

It doesn’t matter. Rouleau’s “Terra Gatto Warriors” (“gatto” is Italian for cat) borrows a bit from both traditions: 50 freestanding sculptures arranged in rows, their cute, round cat-heads sculpted from clay like the Chinese terracotta figures, their bodies bound, like an Egyptian mummy’s, in strips of burlap.

It’s funny and a little bit morbid, and it draws on our fascination with mummies and both ancient and modern conceptions of the afterlife to pose serious questions about mortality and the significance of any one life.

“There’s this intrigue that [mummies] have somehow reached this immortality in some way,” Rouleau said.

Context, though, is everything.

While creating both the “Terra Gatto Warriors” and, with Roberts, the “Art of the Catacombs” series, Rouleau thought back on a visit she made years ago to the Catacombs of Paris, the massive ossuary beneath that city where bones were relocated from overcrowded urban cemeteries during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A tourist attraction for more than a century, now, the catacombs contain the bones of an estimated 6–7 million people, all artfully arranged in former mining tunnels.

“Just millions of skulls and bones in intricate patterns, and you’re so close,” she recalled. “And they’re lining the walls and it goes on and on and on.”

A single mummy is one thing: a relic, a mystery in a gilt box, the remains of a single life. It carries the imagination back to courts ancient Egypt.

But how does the mind deal with towers of undifferentiated bones? There’s no single story to latch onto, no easy way to conceive of millions of people living and dying, being buried for years and then dug up and deposited an abandoned mine. Rouleau said she left the Catacombs of Paris with “an eerie sense of [my] own mortality.”

But she must also have been impressed by the ghoulish aesthetic of the ossuary. Her collaborations with Roberts might evoke that feeling of spine-tingling insignificance she experienced in the catacombs, but they also offer a format to experiment with patterns, color relationships and form. They transform the morbid into the sublime.

For one large “Art of the Catacombs” piece installed this winter at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, the 11-foot-tall “Crucifix,” Rouleau spent half a year positioning nearly 1,000 of her shrouded mummy figurines in a cross-shaped arrangement of letterpress boxes. She was seeking out “rhythms” in the relationships between the figures, each crafted by hand and painted in a spectrum of colors. 

“When I look at the big pieces from a distance I like it to be almost like a stained glass window in a church,” she said.

“Terra Gatto Warriors” is a bit more playful. Rouleau’s mummy cats don’t so much resemble the slinky, dagger-eared breed depicted in ancient Egyptian art as your typical white-and-orange housecat. Humorously, they look just as solemn as the Chinese emperor’s guards.

When she first made them several years ago, Rouleau said, she had no idea the Minneapolis Institute of Arts planned to host a contingent of the actual Terracotta Warriors this fall. With that blockbuster exhibition closing this month, could there be a better time for her to take over the Douglas Flanders & Associates gallery in Uptown?

Rouleau’s warriors are on display alongside several pieces from the “Art of the Catacombs” series. Most pieces in the series don’t feature cat figurines (although all featured at the Flanders gallery will). Despite the evidence, Rouleau shouldn’t be mistaken for a cat lady.

“I’ve never had a cat,” she said. “Isn’t that ironic?”

(CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct a mispelling of “Terra Gatto Warriors,” and to clarify which pieces will be appearing in the exhibition at Douglas Flanders & Associates gallery.) 

Go see it

“Terra Gatto Warriors” runs through Feb. 2 at Douglas Flanders & Associates,
910 W. Lake St. 791-1285. flandersart.com