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Issue 151

“Artery” — Allison Katz
by Sam Weselowski

Entering the gallery-cum-consulate at Canada House is not unlike passing through airport security, the guard informs me. First, I’m required to book tickets online or by QR code, which involves several sweaty minutes on Eventbrite while standing in the vestibule. I’m next instructed to place my belongings in a plastic tub that will pass through a baggage scanner, then walk through the archway metal detector. The guard gives me a good-natured “Thank you” and opens the reinforced glass doors that lead to the satellite extension of “Artery,” a new exhibition by Montreal-born, London-based artist Allison Katz.

Canada House represents something like the frontier garrison for “Artery,” which is more centrally anchored at Camden Art Centre. The four walls just beyond the security detail feature a selection of posters Katz has designed for just about every show she’s ever participated in. These images display not only her attraction toward the optics of advertising, but how those ways of seeing have framed and ultimately shaped her artistic practice. At the same time, the posters function as an autobiographical record, visually documenting the different contexts and geographies in which Katz’s oeuvre has appeared. Navigating the Canadian consulate’s screening protocols feels essential to viewing this archive of posters and to “Artery” more broadly, as though experiencing a miniaturized version of national border security at a gallery were some kind of participatory gesture on Katz’s part. The poster, that exemplar of informational conveyance, has been ensconced within multiple layers of digital and government administration. Put differently, the Canada House portion of “Artery” distils the wider exhibition’s key thematics, whereby Katz investigates the ways in which aesthetic practices link—if not absorb—autobiography, commodity culture, and the infrastructures of urban and geopolitical space.

About 8 km north of Canada House, Camden Art Centre sees “Artery” in its second iteration, as the exhibition originally took place at Nottingham Contemporary in 2021. That many of the same artworks appear here as they did there is only one aspect of their continuity. Indeed, what magnetizes these installations is Katz’s sharp eye for urban environments. The Nottingham Contemporary show spilled over into the nearby City of Caves, a network of tunnels variously used as public-house cellars and World War II-era air-raid shelters. At Camden Art Centre, “Artery” stretches out toward Canada House while burrowing into the gallery space, as in the trompe l’oeil painting Elevator III (Camden Art Centre) (2021) that has been positioned on the wall behind the lift, as though back to back with it, to both mirror and distort the building’s inner passages. Elsewhere, Katz’s infrastructural images, such as the scaffolds and waterways in Nottingham Canal, 11th March 2020 (2021), serve as foils for her borderline surrealist ones, such as The Cockfather (2021). The competing senses of the exhibition’s title are stark: with images of bridges, roads, and elevators, “Artery” names the ambient environments that underpin daily life, whereas paintings centred on gooey animals and serrated teeth suggest an association that’s emphatically biological if not outright alien.

Katz also jams these connotations together. The most striking example of this is a series of paintings mounted on free-standing slabs, arranged in a flying-V formation. Each is framed by gaping mouths, whose ripples of enamel and gums toggle between visual perspective and point of consumption while also evoking a sense of erotic proximity or potential violence. Aimed at the licorice-braided rooster of Stage Cock (2021) or the translucent feline of Alley Cat (2020), Katz’s mouths synthesize distinct kinds of sensory experience—taste and sight—just as much as they allude to the wordplay that underwrites her work—cats for Katz. The reverse sides of these slabs showcase a painted series of cabbages. Vegetables are a strangely effective synecdoche for the associative shocks in “Artery”; Katz highlights how their fractal structure uncannily reproduces in leafy form both the capillaries of contemporary cityscapes and human bodies alike.

In Ssik (2020), the mouth is an aperture through which our gaze passes (like the metal detector at Canada House), arriving at two faces poised between exchanging a kiss or whisper. Squinting at their pale cheeks, the faintest inscription can be seen: “Katz” materializes from the left-hand face, while I can just make out “ck” emerging from the oral commissure on the right. Here, “Katz” is not so much an authorial signature as a brand name, that engine of cultural capital, and has been planted within intimacy’s close quarters. With M.A.S.K. (2021) you see a similar immersion in consumer culture, where Katz recreates Steven Meisel’s ad for Miu Miu that she starred in last year. In Meisel’s photograph, Katz sits on what resembles a weathered yoga mat, surrounded by fruit, shuttlecocks, and a spiky massage ball, while the lines of her fingers counterpose the folds of her luxury handbag. Katz’s mouth is only a few millimeters open, her facial expression frozen and inscrutable, mask-like. Aside from the pink fissures and veiny blues that dominate the pictorial field, Katz’s version includes more subtle changes too. The room appears somehow more spacious than Meisel’s set, yet the articulation of the walls gives the impression that she’s cornered. In some ways she is: the boundary between self-portrait and consumer spectacle has been broken, and in its wake Katz presents herself as an object of consumption. Contrariwise, the mouth produces a kind of perspectival overload, metonymizing the camera, Meisel’s gaze, our gaze, and even Katz’s gaze, this last being directed back at all the others. The painting reconstructs commercial advertising only to suspend its logic.

Katz ultimately elicits some baseline questions about aesthetic pleasure: how do we distinguish or safeguard our enjoyment of earthly possessions from the sensory conditions of capital? How do we experience desire as not just another extraction? In addressing this dilemma, Katz’s construction of consumer spectacle as an autobiographical form doesn’t simply soak the latter with the former, but rather places them in dialectical unease. At the same time, Katz underscores that the antagonism between aesthetic pleasure and commodity culture needs to be understood as part of a broader mosaic of urban infrastructure and border security. “Artery” ends where it begins, with the viewer set adrift inside a circulatory system of cabbage veins, city streets, body scanners, and toothy caverns.

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