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Art Comes In Spurts: Allison Katz’s Artery
John Quin , February 19th, 2022 09:51

John Quin goes with the flow at the Camden Art Centre

Installation view of Allison Katz, Artery at Camden Art Centre, 2022. Photo: Rob Harris

The fun begins in the atrium before you enter the main gallery: six posters advertise the show, each of them neatly framed, each providing motifs that will recur in a metamorphosed form in the paintings that follow next door. The variations in font and image are so convincingly disparate (one hints at 1960s psychedelia, another at neo-classicism) as to suggest the work of a collective: this is Katz’s neat opening gag. She designed them all.

The second joke on the visitor is a lift that isn’t a lift: Elevator III (Camden Art Centre) (2021) is a startlingly convincing trompe l’oeil painting that demonstrably halts today’s viewers in their tracks. This is the way… but you can’t step inside. As Zeuxis deceived birds with his bunch of grapes Katz confuses the contemporary art audience with her volumetric illusion. Subtle yellow streaks of paint imitate artificial illumination and draw you in: you want to press a non-existent button for the ground floor. Katz can do photorealism; she’s mastered the pristine sheen of clean metallic surfaces and can go mano a mano with the likes of Richard Estes. The take home message appears to be: ‘Look, before we move on I can do realism and I can do it very well – so let’s try something a little bit trickier.’

Only connect: there’s a kind of rheology at work here, a study in flow, a definite sense the artist is asking you to circulate from image to image and join the dots. There may be deformations in sense, exaggerations in form, odd diversions swelling like an aneurysm, and meanings may occasionally clot: dead ends threaten, but push on. The visual jokes are sometimes obvious, sometimes not, as with The Other Side (2021) that plays with the old non-gag gag: ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ A giant yellow cockerel splattered with rice grains is painted strutting as in a chronophotographic study, an image that might reference Futurism and Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912).

Katz digs anti-humour and her paintings play with obvious and unobvious punch lines, in this sense her work recalls the strategies of Picabia; there’s a similar reluctance to being pigeon-holed. Akgraph (Tobias + Angel) (2021), an overlapping drawing of a face over a painting of a winged figure with a halo, is not dissimilar to one of Picabia’s ‘Transparency’ works. The eyes, nose, and mouth of the face feature the letters M, A, S, and K. There’s self-referentiality at work here as the initials spelling the artist’s name: Ms. Allison Sarah Katz. Elsewhere we see the open workings of a canvas, the stretcher exposed, yet another trope borrowed from Picabia.

Katz’s range of technique is manifest. She can do Doig-like landscapes too as with Nottingham Canal 11th March 2020 (2021). Another form of circulation is referenced here: an apparently straightforward post-industrial scene done with bravura brushwork, the browns and blues and whites convincingly capture the murky surface ripples on the artificial waterway. Surrealism is referenced again in her Magritte-like Cabbage (and Philip) series from 2013. Said vegetable is captured in various arrangements aside a silhouette of a man’s face. A gag on heads then, or is it a reference to Serge Gainsbourg’s L’Homme à tête de chou (1976)? Who knows? Comedy, as ever, has the potential to exclude. You don’t always get the joke, or non-joke. The bizarre Someone else’s dream (2021) with its cows and horses and crouching figure is baffling, but then other peoples dreams often are.

And Katz can do enigmatic portraiture as with M.A.S.K. (2021) where she paints herself sat on a floor with a handbag and various still life objects of dubious import: an orange, a shuttlecock, some potatoes, a handbag. The style here has something of her elder namesake, Alex the American master, in the simple rendering of the artist’s face, the hard won simplicity of capturing eyebrows and lips with swift brushwork.

Calling a show ‘Artery’ asks us: is there a steady aesthetic pulse at work here? Should your art be as smooth as a canal or as bumpy as a rollercoaster? Louis F. Céline famously wanted his writings to be ‘like the Metro’: he wanted to create a clear, intimate path in his stories without what he called ‘tiresome chaos’. You could argue that Katz favours scattershot imagery. The arterial system here is zippy; hers is a busy lane-switching highway, an A12 if you like, exhilarating and not without threat. This Camden show is more of a ‘zigzagging’ as the French author puts it in his own musings on artistic strategy. These chicanes of style risk incoherence but look closer: those Man Ray lips in the sky seen in To Be Continued Unnoticed (2019) provide another clue. Katz’s work has the skewed logic of a neo-surrealist.

Gaping mouths act as a frame, a proscenium arch effect, in another group of paintings. We peer into the maws like a dentist and in one see a scene from an earlier exhibition, a painting of paintings themselves on display: Interior View II “William N. Copley” Milan (2016–17).

In short this is a very knowing show, gushing and post-post modernist in its trickery. Katz has a protean painterly talent recalling that of David Salle but she’s funnier than him. There is much play here on what appear to be the endothelial-thin layers of meaning in this world but underneath Katz’s cleverness lurks a tough, muscular, layer of skill. Don’t worry if you don’t get all the japes. Be like the chickens and break on through to the other side.

Allison Katz, Artery, is at Camden Art Centre until 13 March