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Jesse Smigel sees the marketing potential of merging meme-friendly felines and familiar sci-fi imagery

Stretching across the curved surface of the right gallery wall, one encounters a banner depicting housecats engaged in all-out warfare against the infamous hive-mind species, The Borg, from the Star Trek franchise. Cats and kittens claw the sides of Borg cubes from all angles, while others are targeted by lasers, or float in space as they’re caught by tractor beams.

After the initial what-the-fuck moment fades, the potential genius marketing strategy of artist Jesse Smigel’s new exhibit at the Winchester Cultural Center begins to reveal itself. Cute photos and videos of cats have become staples of contemporary society’s daily visual intake. There’s a general fixation with science-fiction topics — space exploration, alien invasions — as well. Smigel’s merging of the two could be interpreted as an artistic formula for appealing to the widest possible demographic. Cats plus sci-fi could be, literally, right on the money.

While finding a smoother approach to installing a giant mural on a curved wall would benefit the piece, the panorama of amusing configurations of cats clinging to cubes set against deep space nebulae is still enjoyably kitschy and humorous. In an art world that, many might say, takes itself too seriously, artists like Smigel remind us to keep our sense of humor. His absurdly silly images, objects and narratives bump against the boundaries and high-minded ideals we impose upon art, impishly asking, why can’t art be fun? When’s the last time art made you laugh?

After perusing “Kitty Cat Borg Attack …,” we move on to a series of propaganda posters blending felines with H.R. Giger’s Alien. A hairless cat yawns, allowing a small green head with tiny vicious jaws to pop out of its mouth, holding a pop-gun sign exclaiming “MEOW!” The text on the sign reads: “Unclean? … Sanitize! Report Genetic Experiments. Would you like to know meow?” To the right, the hiss of a second animal is transformed into campy sci-fi horror with another tiny hissing mouth inserted in the tip of the cat’s tongue.

Smigel introduces the exhibit by explaining that the alien cats are products of “unsanctioned genetic experiments,” which frequently occur in the fictional future. Perhaps the alien cats don’t need a backstory to explain their existence? They’re interesting in and of themselves.

But there’s more to the apocalyptic future Smigel imagines, his goofy pastiche of mutated pets also incorporating Starship Troopers and Battlestar Galactica. His story elaborates on how giant space cats have become the front-line defense of the human race against The Borg. It also references a futuristic smile facilitator known as “Smi-gel,” which the “Fleet Corporation,” running things in the year 4013, insists everyone use regularly. A short video titled “Smi-gel Brand Smile Gel Commercial” demonstrates the product being applied by a maniacally grinning scientist to the smooth jaw of a stoic soldier.

The suggestion is clear: If the absurd mixture of cats and sci-fi didn’t get you smiling, perhaps we’re in need of some chemical assistance.

THE PERFECT FUTURE IS SANITARY … THE SANITARY FUTURE IS PURRRFECT through July 12, Winchester Cultural Center Gallery, 3130 S. McLeod Drive, 455-7340