Allison Katz’s “Artery” was what could be called an art critic’s dream. Three reviews had already appeared by the time I got to it a few weeks after it opened—from Sydney via Heathrow, jet-lagged and disoriented. Somehow, though, the writers seemed to miss important elements of the exhibition, which consisted of thirty confounding paintings, ceramics, and prints, all representational but in a variety of styles. It went unremarked that the works had clearly been made to fit precisely into the two large rooms of Camden Art Centre in which they were displayed; the fact that turned out to be crucial. And then there were details—well, more than details—such as the recurrent use of the motif of a rooster (a “cockerel” in Canadian-born Katz’s UK English), misidentified as a chicken in one text. This was obviously a comical reference to the artistic ego, specifically the male artist’s ego, as manifested through self-proclamation. Thus, even before one got to the first gallery space, five self-mocking and self-aggrandizing posters in the foyer made by Katz advertised the project one was already on one’s way to see.
The show’s title evoked circulation and the body and created narrative connections. Elevator III (Camden Art Centre), 2021, the first painting in the largest room straight after the posters, was key. Showing a lift with its doors open, it invited visitors into a fictional space positioned on the wall on the other side of an existing elevator shaft. Worked in extreme detail, then overworked in a deliberately clumsy way to skew it, the painting had an awkward manner that made for a visual treat. In my sleep-deprived state, standing in front of the trompe l’oeil metal grooves of the entry to the elevator that led into the illusion of the central metal box, I literally lost my balance. This corporealized mechanical framing—if we wanted to plunge into theory, one could mention Jacques Derrida’s idea of the parergon and related issues of borders and peripheries—cited its own peripheral place in the painting. In tandem with the posters outside, it posed basic questions about what was central and what was marginal to the exhibition—or maybe just which side of the building and artistic experience we were on.
The rest of the first room was divided in two by The Other Side, 2021, a huge painting of the logo-like cockerel depicted in forward motion through a series of overlapping silhouettes. Hung across two temporary walls, it presented a solid identity, a contradictory sense of ego, an alpha male rendered by a woman metaphorically attempting to blow the space apart with its multiplying singularity. Another work in this room was CCTV, 2020. Hung high on the wall, it portrayed a small spectral fairy looking down on us, suggesting magical surveillance. Meanwhile, the ceramic work Reflexivity, 2019, pictured the artist’s face twice, joined by a central eye—a reflective schizo-literalism, a representation at once didactic and divided.
The second room was tight. Five temporary walls were placed in a staggered arrangement so the viewer could see all of the walls simultaneously from a single point in the gallery. Each held a painting the width of itself, showing a scene glimpsed through a painted mouth—a view of the outside world as seen inside one’s own head. The verso of each wall harbored a surprise, as one discovered when walking around the back: small paintings from the series “Cabbage (and Philip),” 2013–, each juxtaposing a brassica with a shadowy male profile. Philip is the name of Katz’s husband, her “other half.”
In a witty, sophisticated manner, beyond institutional critique, this exhibition asked questions such as, What is reflexivity, and on whose terms does it happen? In opposition to the tendency to simply exhibit paintings, Katz used an eclectic site-specific installation to interrogate her own authority and that of the gallery space. This was an experiment with what an exhibition might and could be. Was it just my jet lag, or did my brain actually get reorganized by this experience?