Diagnosed in 1987 with HIV, Hugh Steers maintained a commitment to figuration throughout his career, cut dramatically short by AIDS at the age of 32. His painterly finesse was grounded in the history of Western art, and he once described his work as “allegorical realism” created “to draw the viewer in through the lure of a comfortingly recognizable style and then confront him with a subject matter of a challenging nature.”
In Sleeping Cat (1988), Steers depicts two nude men in bed. One man is asleep, a black cat curled up tightly next to his chest. Steers often included cats in his compositions as visual signifiers of his subjects' emotional states. In this composition, the cat's restfulness serves to underscore the deep somnolence of the lax man. In contrast, his companion is awake and perched awkwardly on the edge of bed. He reaches out to lightly touch his sleeping partner as if he to reassure himself that all is well, seemingly unaware of the snake slowly winding its way up his leg. This enigmatic and surreal tableau recalls the art historian Gerard Haggerty’s observation about Steers’s paintings, “Their … execution suggests the urgency that accompanies the delivery of news in a moment of crisis, or the need to set down vivid dreams before they fade from memory.” A dream-like scene, Sleeping Cat obliquely articulates the anxieties of the AIDS epidemic, its imagery inviting viewers to construct their own narratives around sickness, companionship, and the danger of desire.