Allison Katz’s exhibition Artery takes place against the background of a renewed attention to image-based painting. It’s not the case that artists ever abandoned this kind of work, but rather that there has been a new engagement with it on the part of audiences, curators and galleries over the last ten years.
To put it crudely, one could divide current image-based paintings into two main groups: paintings where the depicted subjects are important to the artist; and those where they are not. The first group might include paintings showing places or people that were significant to the artists and whose prominence they wanted to elevate by giving them space in the public realm of the gallery. There are paintings conceived as corrections to art history’s exclusions. There are canvases based on images that the artists discovered during research. There are works with fantastical scenes that are deeply meaningful to their creators. In the second group, there are paintings that come out of artists’ immersion in the contemporary image-world. The painters of these pictures are alert to the random flow of images while scrolling through Instagram or surfing the web. They understand how we are targeted by images. They update the enquiries of the ‘Pictures Generation’ – post-pop artists who in the late 1970s beganto scrutinise the functions that images play in determining our behaviour and attitudes.
Allison Katz’s work is puzzling because it doesn’t easily fit into either of these two groupings. While she has been an image-based painter from the start (since the first solo exhibition of 2009), it’s pretty unlikely that she has a deep fascination with cabbages and cockerels, whales and dogs, elevator interiors and views from open mouths, and we can’t be expected to believe that she feels a political imperative to insert these images into the circuits of contemporary art. Yet it is also clear that these images are not all derived from existing ones: this is not a project about the circulation of pictures today. It’s also evident that Katz does have an attachment to her subjects in a way that someone randomly picking images to paint would not: the paintings are carefully made, and each work in a series has a different composition, scale and materiality, suggesting that the work is an outcome of careful and precise decisions.
So, if Katz’s paintings fall into neither of my two crude categories, the question remains: why does she paint the images she paints? One way to answer is to understand her work as primarily about the condition of painting itself. Or rather the conditions of painting: its materiality, its conventions of depiction, the way images signify in paintings or lose their meanings, how paintings behave differently when paired with titles, or juxtaposed with other paintings, or arranged in spaces. She is interested in painting’s claims to depict deep space, and against this capacity for illusionism, she stresses its surface materiality. She is also fascinated by the historical claims made for its genres – for instance the idea that a self-portrait reveals something authentic about the artist. As well as looking at painting, she thinks about the painter and the myths around this figure, how the painter has been valued as someone who can reveal their interior self and express their personal perspective on the world, or how the painter is expected to perform in the arena of the art world.
These concerns manifest themselves through Katz’s choices of images and materials. The cockerel paintings, which started out as surrogate images of the artist’s partner and which play with the iconography of masculinity and power, could also be seen to stand for the painter – proudly parading at openings and art fairs, creating a spectacle of themselves. A pair of paintings feature the artist’s body parts, rendered in a photorealistic style, next to depictions of an elf: Self-Elf (2016), and Elf-Esteem (2017). These works might be seen as humorous, ambiguous reflections on the conventions of the self-portrait and its promises to disclose intimate details about the artist. Katz both presents such details (a very personal scar, for instance) and undermines the genre by punning on self and elf, self-help and self-esteem. In the cabbage paintings, the profile of the artist’s partner intrudes at the side, but the bulk of her labour has been expended on painting the vegetable, a decision that acknowledges her doubt about the very project of portraiture. The suite of paintings bordered by lips and teeth appear to show a view of a terrain as if seen from the back of the throat – the works gently mock the idea of painting as a kind of expression of gut feelings. So too they make us think about utterance and the different ways in which ideas are articulated, or for that matter garbled, in speech and in painting. Katz mixes sand into paint or scatters rice across a surface to contrast the illusionism of an image with real matter, each grain a discreet unit, unlike the particles of pigment that are dissolved into the medium of her paint.
Katz is also interested in how meaning works in a painting. Rather than thinking that image-based paintings are transparent and can signify straightforwardly to carry an intended message from maker to viewer, she emphasises how slippery meaning is. There are several works with overlapping images where one motif is seen through another and the viewer has to negotiate the interplay while trying (or failing) to make sense of the painting. Katz also demonstrates how the significance of a painting will depend on factors beyond the limits of the canvas: its title, its position in a group of works, its relationship to the architecture of an exhibition, the tools used to advertise its presence (she has devoted whole exhibitions to her posters, as she does again in her satellite exhibition to this Camden show, staged concurrently at Canada House on Trafalgar Square). Her titles are often puns that embody, in the most tender of ways, the idea of multiple meanings. Her paintings are usually made in groups. In her 2016 exhibition We boil at different degrees, nine paintings were hung around a rectangular room, increasing in size from 16 x 13 cm to 305 x 244 cm (or decreasing, depending on how you looked at it), which meant that any single panel was structurally connected to the whole group, and its images were read in terms of this relationship. If you took a work away from the group, you’d think of it quite differently. Her 2018 exhibition Diary w/o Dates featured twelve paintings of the same size, one for each month of the year. The titles are reminiscent of Snow White’s dwarves: Slippy, Nippy, Drippy, Showery and so on, but the point is that the meaning of any single work was again dependent on its context. When she needs to, Katz will transform the architecture of a gallery to play up the interdependency of works – for instance building a dodecahedron in the centre of the Oakville Galleries for the first installation of Diary w/o Dates, a wall for each work. She may also make a work to double a feature of the existing architecture, as with her paintings of the interiors of the elevators used to move art into the galleries that she made for Nottingham and Camden, and that she displays adjacent or in relation to the original.
Katz’s ideas about the conventions of painting, the myths of the painter, the contingency of meaning in painting, the relationship of a painting to other works, and the determining power of architecture and institutional conditions on our encounter with a painting are all concerns that she shares with other artists. We could see her cock paintings in relation to Jana Euler’s sharks. Monika Baer chooses motifs that look back to myths about painting – for instance, her images of alcohol bottles that recall the hype around a ‘New Spirit in Painting’ back when she was a student. R.H. Quaytman prepares groups of paintings as chapters and builds unusually positioned walls in her exhibitions to give structure to their interrelationships. Charline Von Heyl, with whom Katz studied at Columbia, suggests multiple ways to destablise meaning in painting. She populates her works with the historical components of abstract painting that have accrued meaning – a drip, a black outline, a shape, a stripe, a grid – but renders each element in such a way that it is not what it seems (a drip might be hand-painted) so that its ‘meaning’ is eroded.
Katz respects all these fellow painters and contributes to this broader enquiry about the conditions of painting today, but all this notwithstanding, there remains something deeply personal about her choice of subjects. When I asked her about a particularly compelling painting of a snow-covered balcony in New York, she explained that it was of the last place she rented when she lived in that city, and that she made the painting when she arrived in London. As she re-painted the scene across three subsequent works, the image began to stand for an era of her life spent in New York, as well as for the snowy winters of her childhood home, Montreal, and for a sense of exile.
When quizzed about a painting of Tobias and the Angel seen from behind, she mentioned that on a visit to the National Gallery, she was so struck by Andrea Verrocchio’s painting on this theme – partly because of the image, and partly because Tobias is her mother’s maiden name – that she determined to inhabit the scene and imagine the pair from another angle, before signing her own initials over it. Why does a scrawny cat appear outside one of her gaping mouths? It’s an alley cat, and Ally Cat was a childhood nickname.
So Katz does not quite fit the profile of the conceptual artist-painter conducting a rigorous and totally objective analysis of painting’s conditions. Indeed, one might note a number of contradictions that structure her practice. These are not contradictions that threaten the coherency of her practice or undermine her ambitions, but ones that animate her approach. Perhaps ‘contradictions’ is too strong; perhaps they are just different impulses not usually seen together. Katz is resolutely committed to making figurative paintings, but she’s clearly also a bit hesitant about image-making, and sceptical about the categorisation of genres and styles. On the one hand, she takes a bold ownership of her exhibition spaces, transforming architecture to her own ends; on the other, she plays with words and gives her exhibitions apparently light-hearted titles. On the one hand, she unapologetically uses images of her body (for instance, it’s her face floating over the snowy balcony in Slippy, or, in a recent work, a picture of herself from a photoshoot for Miu Miu). On the other, she takes a self-deprecating, somewhat embarrassed approach to her self-image, often turning to caricature in quasi-self-portraits. She uses a trope like the cockerel to contribute to a critical discussion of power relationships in the world of painting, but she repeats it with such eye-catching flair and regularity that one could say that the cockerel stands for her.
In a similar fashion, Katz’s recurrent use and deconstruction of her own name is also at once serious and light. She knows that her surname was allocated to an ancestor upon arrival in the New Country after an exhausting transatlantic voyage. It’s not sacred since it’s not really hers anyway, so why not play with it – thus All Is On; Alley Cat; AKGraph; MASK (Ms Allison Sarah Katz). One of her titles is AKA. Perhaps AKA is a good way to think about her practice in its entirety, and all its contradictions. Painters, writers and musicians use AKA not just to present two names, but to insinuate that their output is self-differing. Katz’s work has always been ‘this’ and also ‘that’. This is what’s compelling about it, but also that.
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'Painting is an artificial medium in which you have to be genuine.'
Allison Katz was born in Montreal, Canada in 1980 and currently lives and works in London, England. She studied fine arts at Concordia University in Montreal and received her MFA from Columbia University in New York. Significant recent institutional solo exhibitions of her work have been presented at Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham, UK; the MIT List Center for the Arts, Cambridge, MA; Oakville Galleries, Oakville, Canada; and Kunstverein Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany. Notable group exhibitions include Mixing It Up: Painting Today, Hayward Gallery, London, UK; The Imaginary Sea, Fondation Carmignac, Porquerolles, France; Slow Painting, curated by Hayward Touring (presented at Leeds Museum and Art Gallery, Leeds, UK; Levinsky Galley, Plymouth, UK); Maskulinitäten, Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn, Germany; Paint, Also Known as Blood, Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw, Poland; and Puddle, Pothole, Portal, SculptureCenter, New York, NY. A comprehensive monograph on Katz’s work was published by JRP|Editions in 2020.
Mark Godfrey is an independent curator and art historian based in London.
Generously supported by Lead Donors; the Glauber Family, Alex V Petalas and YiXiao Ding and by members of the Allison Katz Exhibition Circle; Roberto and Tania Díaz Sesma and Anna McKelvey and The Ovitz Family Collection. With special thanks to the High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom, Luhring Augustine, New York and Gio Marconi, Milan.