Allison Katz, Artery, review: a zany show that puts the mischief back into painting

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Which came first?: The Cockfather (2021, detail) by Allison Katz - Courtesy of the artist / Luhring Augustine, NY
Which came first?: The Cockfather (2021, detail) by Allison Katz - Courtesy of the artist / Luhring Augustine, NY

“Painting,” said Georges Seurat, “is the art of hollowing a surface out.” Like many a general insight, it’s so accurate that it’s easy to overlook, but few exhibitions have recalled Seurat’s words with as much élan as this.

Artery, a new show at Camden Art Centre by the Canadian artist Allison Katz, is a group of disparate paintings that mess with the viewer’s impression of depth. There’s a trompe l’œil view of an open lift; a nature-scene covered in snapshots of apparently miscellaneous things; and a sacred heart, blazing aloft and framed by monkeys having a Matissean dance.

Her 24 paintings, most of which were completed in the past two years, have no single subject or topic. So, in trying to understand what they’re about, you first notice that they share a few motifs. One cockerel – The Cockfather – has shrunk into a living platter, carrying a trio of eggs; another one – Stage Cock – is a colourful porcelain bird, either pecking the ground or receiving applause.

Posterchild is a collage, carefreely done, of faces, rivers, buildings, and details pinched from nearby works. Then there are five still-lifes from an ongoing series, each one depicting a cabbage beside the shadow of a male face. Given the midribs and veins of the leaves, these are the most literally linked of Katz’s works to her title, Artery.

Yet they’re also, by some distance, the least lively paintings here. Katz is best when she’s egoistic, assembling figures and objects with which she can toy like a mischievous child. In M.A.S.K. – or “Ms Allison Sarah Katz” – she repaints a 2021 Miu Miu advert, which featured herself with a pale pink clutch, then she surrounds it with teeth and lips, as though we were looking out from the artist’s mouth. And yet the same Ms Katz is centre-stage: both creator and superstar.

Akgraph (Tobias + Angel) is differently playful, a study in irreverence. It re-imagines a 15th-century altar painting by Andrea del Verrocchio, then floats Katz’s face across the two figures, her features sketched as the letters “m”, “a”, “s” and “k”. (Why she didn’t name this work as a calligram, a word in which her name is half-present, is a mystery to me.)

Interior View II, “William N Copley”, Milan, 2016–17 (2021) by Allison Katz - © Courtesy of the artist / Luhring Augustine, NY
Interior View II, “William N Copley”, Milan, 2016–17 (2021) by Allison Katz - © Courtesy of the artist / Luhring Augustine, NY

This may all sound self-involved, but Artery has more serious purpose than you initially realise. You’re made to focus on connections, and figuring out how, and why, they existed in Katz’s mind. The exhibition wants to engage in a visual game with itself, and you. A few metres behind the Stage Cock, a slinky Alley Cat – Katz’s old nickname – looks ready to pounce. The duo 2020 (Ephemeral) and 2020 (Femoral) depict the same tangle of naked limbs, and the same blank ovals on top, but they swap their smooth and sand-roughened sections, and their colour-palettes as well. On the other side of the wall to the painted lift (Elevator III) is the real one that brought the works up to the gallery.

There’s no grand thesis or statement here: instead, these paintings are intriguing representations of a mind on the go. In lesser hands, this might have been tiresome – art about making art. But thanks to Katz’s imagination, the show is that rarer thing: continuous fun.

Until March 13. Tickets: camdenartcentre.org

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