Artists and UVA students connect the dots in Google Earth project

Artist and UVA professor Megan Marlatt leads “The Cardboard Collective” to create a public work of art visible via satellite. (Kelly Johnson)

Working under the direction of artist and professor Megan Marlatt, “The Cardboard Collective” has been at it again painting “Hello Pluto, Good-bye Kitty” on an asphalt parking lot off Route 29. Made up of hundreds of tar-painted black cats, some birds, human figures that resemble dappled shadows falling across the pavement, and even oil stains from cars, the individual shapes act like pixels blending together to form the larger figure of Pluto, the long-suffering feline of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Black Cat.” Marlatt is unsure of Pluto’s exact size. But with the parking spaces measuring about 8 feet in width and 13 composing his grin, she reckons it alone is 104 feet long—certainly big enough to be visible (when photographs are updated on the site) on Google Earth.

Marlatt has a long history of painting on asphalt. She’s done De Chirico’s girl with a hoop from his “Mystery and Melancholy of a Street” on the Trenton, New Jersey Museum parking lot (1984), a flock of birds at the Hillwood Art Museum on the C.W. Post campus on Long Island, New York (1993), and still more birds for UVA’s Art Museum’s “Hindsight/Foresight: Art for the New Millennium” (2000). “Hello Pluto, Good-bye Kitty” is a follow-up assignment for Marlatt’s special projects students (a.k.a the Cardboard Collective—Marie Bergeron, David Cook, Carmen Diaz, Shiry Guirguis, Margaret King, Brendan Morgan and Cherith Vaughan) who worked with Tom Burckhardt on the Brooks Hall re-creation exhibited at Ruffin Hall earlier this year. For some time, Marlatt and her husband, acclaimed filmmaker and photographer Richard Robinson, have been itching to do a large-scale site-specific piece that would be both transformational and ephemeral (while the painting will transform the landscape, it will fade over time and disappear). Instead of using an ordinary camera to record it, as is the practice with time-sensitive, site-specific artwork, they wanted to use the Google Earth satellite. Of course, this meant they had to go really big.

Beyond the story, Poe’s “The Black Cat” appealed to Marlatt and Robinson because “of what it could offer us visually.” Indeed, when Marlatt went to look at the parking lot, she immediately saw how the parking space lines could become the cat’s teeth. In her previous work on roads and parking lots she has always chosen subjects that lent themselves to silhouette and were thus naturally simpatico to asphalt.

For Marlatt, it’s important that the piece be about the parking lot (as opposed to an Impressionist painting done on top of it, say). The materials used reflect this: white paint and asphaltum, a natural tarry substance that’s most commonly used these days in printing as the resist medium on copper plates. For the parking lot painting, it’s thinned with mineral spirits to a watery jet-colored liquid that’s applied using rollers on long sticks. The afternoon I went to interview Marlatt at the site, her painting crew consisted of three students. So I picked up a roller and went to work, managing to knock off 12 cats. A major influence for Marlatt are ancient geoglyphs like the Nazca Lines (c. 400-650 AD) of Peru, which feature hundreds of large-scale animal, reptile, and bird figures. Asphaltum nicely dovetails with this as it has a long history of use as paint by native cultures in the areas around the Gulf of Mexico.

“Hello Pluto, Good-bye Kitty”
Located at the corner of
Rte. 29 and Westfield Road

Opened May 12

Marlatt and Robinson liked Pluto’s role in Poe’s tale: “He is not an evil cat; he simply brings to consciousness that which is evil. In that way, he is an indicator of awareness…perhaps our Pluto will make people aware of a space that they may not have given much thought to before…perhaps his presence could become a focal point to a satellite camera that would otherwise be scanning a mundane asphalt expanse?”

The “Hello Kitty” reference was an accident, occurring only after Marlatt had sketched out Pluto and saw the resemblance to the Japanese pop icon, which she immediately embraced, putting a bone on Pluto’s head to echo Hello Kitty’s red bow. Though Marlatt didn’t realize it, Hello Kitty’s real name is Kitty White, underscoring her complete opposition to a black cat. “Hello Pluto, Good-bye Kitty” marries literature, popular culture, and technology in a site-specific, public art piece that references the past, speaks to the present, and charms the eye.

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