Killer Cats, Proud Sphinxes Thrill Crowds in Brooklyn

Cats answer to no one, and like gods, they’re unpredictable, sagacious and ferocious. That’s why they were such popular subjects in ancient mythology.

For its engaging show, “Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt,” the Brooklyn Museum has assembled 30 objects from its collection to display the nature of cats, from feral to tame, killer to maternal benefactor.

The Great Sphinx, with the head of a man and the body of a lion -- the king of beasts -- is arguably the most impressive sculpture ever made. While I was in Egypt, I watched awestruck as the rays of the rising sun crossed its face.

The Sphinx basks, as cats do, in the warmth of the solar diety Ra. Even in its severely damaged state, it radiates otherworldly dignity, patience, a penetrating gaze and infinite readiness.

Sculptor Henry Moore recognized Egyptian art’s “monumentality of vision,” noting that “size and monumentality are not always the same thing.”

Though small, this show’s sculptures bear this out. They are regal, imposing and even charming. A black stone leonine-headed “Face of Sakhmet” -- the warrior goddess and protector of Ra -- balances ferocity with extreme calm.

Mummified Cats

The carved and gilded solid-wood “Figure of a Cat” is one of the most graceful and naturalistic here. Its front legs stand like columns. Its slender body is a swelling vase -- many like it were hollow containers for mummified cats -- and it leans slightly, as if prepared to pounce.

“Divine Felines” wouldn’t be complete without a Sphinx. Here are three wonderful, handheld-scale sculptures. One reclines. The other two stride proudly.

The exhibition’s crowd pleaser depicts a cat nursing four kittens. The exhausted mother lounges, raising her head at the playful kitten approaching her face. The mouth curls into a smile, showing that human attributes were sometimes bestowed on cats.

LaToya Ruby Frazier

In the last-chance department is the Brooklyn Museum’s terrific black-and-white photography exhibition, “LaToya Ruby Frazier: A Haunted Capital.”

Frazier, 31, is among the strongest documentary photographers of her generation. Here, her subjects are her ailing family and hometown, Braddock, Pennsylvania, with its once-thriving steel industry and recently demolished hospital.

Poignant and plainspoken, Frazier’s portraits of people and place strike just the right balance of the personal and political.

Urban landscapes showing destroyed and abandoned buildings suggest the ruins of war.

Domestic scenes are equally charged and touching. In one picture, Grandma Ruby wipes Grandpa’s behind. Elsewhere, we see the artist and her mother standing like sentries next to Ruby’s open casket.

Frazier’s lone figures, on beds, standing, staring into mirrors -- even an empty recliner and a diner cheeseburger -- convey last-stand defiance.

“Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” runs through Dec. 24, 2014, and “LaToya Ruby Frazier: A Haunted Capital” runs through Aug. 11 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway. Information: +1-718-638-5000 or http://www.brooklynmuseum.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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