Painting Back to the Future

As a new wave of sentimental and reactionary painting grows tiresome, Allison Katz’s exhibition at Camden Art Centre offers a wake-up call.

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

There’s an abundance of new painting. And much of it is very good. Still, fatigue ensues. I stop being able to tell the difference, stop wanting to. Why? It was only at a recent visit to Allison Katz’s exhibition Artery at Camden Art Centre that I began to be able to put words to the issue. 

Artery opens with a perfect trompe l’oeil depicting the inside of the gallery’s lift. In the same room is a pastel Bloomsbury-esque ceramic object with a picture of a person. I could imagine a fashion magazine calling it feminist (because, ceramics) and suggesting other similarly appealing objects per the algorithmic logic of “you might also like.” But then follows a large picture of a rooster in shrill yellow and an unusually charmless view onto a brown canal. Nothing matches, either in terms of style or motif. All the works are as precisely and skilfully executed as is necessary. The point is not for Katz to enchant us with painterly rigour; she can afford to not impress us on that front (and the neurotic perfection found in an Emily Mae Smith, Francesca Facciola, or Avery Singer even appears slightly embarrassing by comparison). No, these pictures only have to matter to one another and to the train of thought they take part in egging on.   

I want to find coherence amidst the incongruence – an impulse that quickly segues into a more general consideration of the relationship of style to subjectivity and what it is possible to say with images, as such. Here is the kind of conversation that can only play out between the closest and smartest of friends; where a challenge is never an offence and boring pedagogical niceties are beside the point. I’m in the company of just such a friend, who sees me whirring in the crossfire between the works. “Just you wait,” she says, “there are another three rooms to go, and it only gets better.”

As part of the next constellation, we find a decidedly horrid angel-like abstraction, and a naked Katz on all fours among a herd of cows, as always humorously titled: CCTV (2020) ,and Someone Else’s Dream (2021). respectively. Posterchild (2021) is the exhibition’s Rosetta Stone, a compilation of images – an infant, another brown canal, the silhouette of Katz starring in fashion brand Miu Miu’s Spring/Summer 2021 campaign – that reoccur in other works and allow the apparently random motifs to be understood as part of an established visual vocabulary. It is a wonder how Katz integrates ugliness without a trace of sarcasm. There is not a single superfluous painting in the exhibition, and yet it seems in no way tastefully boring or risk-averse. In fact, it is not with the horrible angel or the flat and messy collage that Katz goes out on a limb. The more dangerous game is played rather with the ‘feminist’ ceramic works and the sexy, zeitgeisty Blondie (2013-2021), a flaming heart framed by a decorative frieze. The idea that a painting could be trendy or beautiful alone, or that an art practice could be reduced to a theme or branding strategy is profoundly contrary to to the ontology that underlies Katz’s production. But the fact that these potentials are even invited into the work, that the danger is implied, becomes an important component of the exhibition’s pictorial balancing act. 

Of course, Katz did not come out of a void. Among possible influences we might name painters such as Merlin Carpenter, Birgit Megerle, and Monika Baer. This bearing in mind the crucial difference that, especially with Carpenter (in the wake of Michael Krebber), we often get the sense that the art is more deconstructive than stimulating and, consequently, confusing rather than genuinely smart.

Jana Euler, of the same generation as Katz, does not capitalise on the viewer’s confusion in the way that Carpenter or Krebber might, but shares with Katz a different kind of generosity and an almost suspiciously abundant energy reserve. In Camden, we meet with Katz’s  enormous creative force. For example, when she, in no time at all – or so I imagine – paints five new canvasses as seen from the inside of a mouth and exhibits them in a triangular formation. These works show, quite plainly, that she is driven not by vanity, but by what is possible to say and think at all – an ambition far beyond the boundaries of her own subjectivity. We only realise what a rare quality that actually is in art once we’re standing in front of it. 

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

Both Euler and Katz are deft at circumventing the contemporary tendency towards a cautious and individualistic politics of affect, as well as the affiliated and just as suffocating career mentality by which young successful artists assume the role of trendspotter or visual merchandiser. But where Katz further excels is by steering clear of obfuscation for its own sake. Even while they present nothing in the way of a message or an answer, her works nonetheless appear as entirely genuine intellectual enquiries into – what, exactly?

The press release gives it a try: “The world the artist seeks to give form to is one where chance gives access to poetic order inside life’s apparent chaos; where one’s own subjectivity and experience collides with the universality of the world, to be read as a route into that which cannot be seen.” And sure, that sounds about right. But it also sounds like a definition of (good) art in general. Actually, the conclusions that we might draw from Katz’s work are irrelevant. The principle matter is fostering a need to think. That is to say, it is not a matter of content, but a way of being in the world.

My hunger for a more intellectual mode of painting should not be understood as a call for painting that is ironic or theoretical. And I don’t think this new wave is all bad – far from it. The works of Michael Armitage and Justin Caguiat are epic, poetic, engrossing, and complex. And then we have Salman Toor’s Post-Impressionism, Julien Nguyen’s Surrealism, Louis Fratino’s New Objectivity: all possess some magic, a thrilling amalgamation of rot and allure. But amidst these reinterpretations of twentieth-century styles – though “queered” and “decolonised” in terms of their subjects – it is somewhat paradoxical that I find myself longing for, precisely, the 20th century.

We’d be hard pressed to find a trace of modernism and the avant-garde, not as an aesthetic but as an attitude, as a way of thinking, in this one-to-one relation between artist, statement, and expression – a relation, which, in the end, is illustrative. In Katz’s works, there is no distance, in fact, no distinction at all, between form and idea. In that sense they are – irrespective of indexicality – not figurative, but profoundly conceptual because their motifs are secondary to a naturally metaphysical project.

When I read Katz’s paintings into such a broad discourse it is meant as an expression of the effect they have on viewers: they make us want to think, find associations, see clearly. It is in this light that much recent painting comes across as simply too earnest. It shares with the (capital-T) Times not only a dull and actually quite conservative sentimentality, but also a somewhat banal literalness which has become so prevalent that we can imagine neither art nor public life without it. With Katz, the first relief is that she’s an adult, and the second is that she is too smart to seriously entertain her own narcissism. And so, the bar has finally been raised.

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