Kasia Kay Gallery, Chicago, Il February 13 – March 28, 2009
Allison Katz makes mille-feuille of “what ifs” and “why nots.” Her paintings are modest in scale and challenging on first encounter. Perfectly at home in Kasia Kay’s intimate West Loop gallery, they speak softly but have much to say. Themes are densely elaborated; verbs buckle under adverbs; and as the show’s title (copped from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost) suggests, much of the visual vocabulary on display oozes with innuendo.
Katz draws from a deep archive that includes Etruscan ruins, amateur photographs, faded postcards, and cellophane-wrapped flowers from a local bodega. Assembled with the Queen of Heart’s caprice, these stray bibelots are woven into the fabric of the artist’s thought-dreams where, by a sort of osmosis, their faded glory and sepia tinge are imbued with pale hues suggestive of early cinematic colorization. Nothing is at ease here. Katz defers relations of pigment and form to the point of pictorial collapse: a patient, unyielding sort of brush-play that leaves more than one canvass squirming like a victim of tickle torture. Beneath the banality of everyday things, one senses the percolation of libidinal excess.
Part of the difficulty in approaching Katz’s work stems from her unwillingness to adopt a fixed position in relation to her subject matter. She is a marvelous still-life painter (the aforementioned cellophane-wrapped flowers are a stand-out work), but she refuses to be only a still-life painter. In “Novy Arbat” (2008), a constellation of superimposed figural and abstract forms metes out its effects in such discrete increments that one cannot help but marvel at the sheer assiduity of the work’s creator. Other paintings appear as though they were undertaken with nothing but a blind faith in the provocative potential of earth tones crossed with neon orange. Katz’s palette is a Petri dish, and she is less a mad scientist than a studied chemist, intent on making roses sprout from duck shit. With bravery born from a seeming leeriness toward her own representational faculties, Katz tinkers and toys her unusual image-repertoire into strangely affecting pictures.
Initially hidden from viewers by a partition at the rear of the gallery, a work entitled “The Cruise” (2007) encourages little more than a description of its constituent parts: newspaper, yellow table, railing, black ocean, glacial mountains, pale sky. This poetry of reduction is in stark contrast to the prosaic formulations of much of the rest of her work. What one begins to take away from this exhibit is an argument for style itself as a kind of objective correlative to the creative encounter. In a poem from Katz accompanying the press release we read:
Painting as a reply,
answered on the diagonal–
that is, a response to the unexpected part of the question, oblique.
I like the painting to meet me half–way, a continually shifting position; the dancing part.
A member of the performance troupe “It’s Our Pleasure to Serve You,” Katz’s approach can be instructively compared to dancing. Her subject is the music, her canvas is the floor, her paint is her partner. She is intent on neither leading nor following, but letting the spirit of the moment guide her steps.
“Apes” (2007) is pure D.H. Lawrence: a primordial love scene in which the surrender to animal urges is accompanied by the spirit’s transcendent flight. Held in an ecstatic embrace, Man and Woman dissolve into slippery, pellucid forms legible only by the loosely sketched outlines of their silhouettes. And yet, just as Lawrence’s own priggishness always sought to interdict the vector of his prevailing desire, so too is there something ultimately repressive at work here. Rising from the verdant, mud-smeared fecundity of this after-the-fall Eden, Katz’s figures seem evacuated of the unbridled life teeming all around them. Like the non-productive “body without organs” of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, Katz’s “Apes” gesture toward a withdrawn, atopic space where catharsis folds back in on itself, giving way to a kind of post-organic vacuity.
With this work Katz seems to be groping at the limits of her “desiring-production;” in the midst of prolificacy we find an abruption of the sterile. What solution this young painter will find to the dilemma immanent to every artist concerned with testing the farthest limits of her libidinal energies—whether she will seize on the liberatory potential promised by this break from jouissance and so transform her procedure into something radically ascetic, or continue, instead, to gain productive inertia from the push and pull of her desiring and repressive instincts—remains to be seen.
A recent MFA graduate of Columbia University, one senses that Katz is still feeling her way with her hands (and her feet), testing the range of her talent and inspiration. This is refreshing to see in an artistic climate that encourages pre-packaged appeal and facile hooks. It suggests that Katz is in it for the long haul. As the “fast and easy” model that has defined our culture of late appears to be crumbling, such an approach is something from which we can all draw encouragement.
After dancing dirty with Katz’s canvasses, Aliza Nisenbaum’s large-scale abstractions (currently on view in Kasia Kay’s project room) are like a cool, dark plunge into the void.
DAVID MARKUS is last child of Generation X. A disaffected critic and belle-lettrist, he resides in NYC.