If you stop to think about it, painting is a strange activity. Putting a colored pigment mixed with a medium on a surface either to describe something, to express feelings, or to make a political or social point is somewhat absurd. It’s also wonderful, of course; a domain only limited by the imagination and, perhaps, the technical ability of the painter. And contemporary painting doesn’t get much stranger or more wonderful than in the art of Allison Katz.
The Canadian-born Londoner’s exhibition at the Camden Art Center is by turns puzzling and ravishing, and deeply engrossing. As the show’s pun title, Artery, suggests, Katz is a playful and inquisitive entertainer. Stylistically, it is extremely diverse – there is a huge trompe l’oeil painting of an elevator at the entrance to the living room, but in another room there is a cartoonish chicken, with grains of rice at the surface, and a sacred heart in an authentic Baroque style, surrounded by a frame with a frieze of silhouettes of cavorting monkeys.
Katz thinks deeply about images and their effects. There are repeated motifs – monkeys, roosters, cabbages and open mouths – and quirky nods to art history, including quotes from paintings and biased interpretations of traditional genres like still life, portraiture and landscape. The way she places her paintings in space, how they talk to each other, is also crucial.
His shows are never orthodox. She is also interested in the presentation of the work beyond the gallery – outside the Camden Art Center is a poster she designed for the exhibition, which you review before entering the exhibition, amidst a group of other posters she created for this and others. shows, each with distinctive lettering and framing.
Katz questions what it means to be an artist with a style, to have a signature. But she manages to be self-referential without being overly self-aware, in part because the way she explores individuality is so broad and distinctive. In a painting, she uses the letters M, A, S and K to form a calligraphic face. The letters turn out to represent Mrs. Allison Sarah Katz. Below is a reference, in muted tones, to a specific art-historical painting, a panel from Verocchio’s studio in the National Gallery depicting Tobias and the Angel. Tobias was Katz’s mother’s maiden name, and she imagines herself to be part of the Verocchio scene as she flips the biblical characters as if following them on their journey.
Another painting, among many in which the images are framed by a gaping mouth – the teeth and gums are straight from a woodcut by André Derain – depicts a weird, skinny cat with digital highlights. It’s called Alley Cat, one of Katz’s old nicknames. A more explicit self-portrait appears in another of the mouth paintings, a photorealistic image of an actual advertisement Katz did for fashion brand Miu Miu. In each painting, I was aware of the care with which she considers her perspective, her vision of what she represents. Here, it’s a throaty view of the image – it feels like Katz doesn’t take himself too seriously.
The mouth paintings are all the same size and hung on freestanding walls the exact width of the painting, set up in a conical formation in the last room of the show; walk behind the walls and there, in niches, are cabbage paintings, each representing a different vegetable, but all with the silhouette of a face next to it, apparently the artist’s partner. By assembling the two, the cabbage becomes a head, like a plant portrait bust. It’s strange; a nod, certainly, to the surrealist imagination.
This show is full of equally fun and unsettling moments. Katz has a knack for creating paintings that draw you in and hold you, leaving you guessing. I left the gallery feeling dizzy, full of questions, but my love for this weird and wonderful medium grew stronger.
Camden Art Center, through March 13, camdenartcentre.org