Allison Katz: artery; Julien Creuzet: Too blue, too deep, too dark, we sank – the review | Painting

A A life-size trompe l’oeil painting of the actual Camden Arts Center lift opens this exhibition by the Canadian artist Allison Katz. Its doors are opened, revealing a deep silver box within. Its metallic sheen gives the artwork a sense of photorealism, but it’s the 3D depth that begs you to enter. It’s a fitting welcome for a show called Artery; the elevator instantly elicits thoughts of transport, liminality and portals.

Katz, 41, was born in Montreal and now lives in London. Her whimsical work, thematically fluid and exploring the conventions of traditional painting, has seen her become a rising figure in contemporary art. She was shortlisted for the Max Mara Art Prize for Women in 2020 and participated in the acclaimed exhibition Mixing It Up: Painting Today at the Hayward Gallery last year. Artery, previously at Nottingham Contemporary, is Katz’s first solo exhibition in the UK and arrives with bags full of his favorite recurring tropes and motifs: monkeys, eggs and more.

Katz has a thing for roosters. In The Rooster’s Father, the body of a chicken has been restructured into the shape of a dish containing three eggs, a comic rumination. There are also a lot of cabbages. She paints them in different shades of bright green and stands them upright on tables. Next to each veined vegetable is the silhouette of a man’s face. They’re pretty pictures, but the joke is figuring out what they are. Are they in fact still lifes or portraits of the artist’s shy companion?

Chou (and Philippe) No 22, 2020. Photography: © Allison Katz; courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

Katz’s eerie, mischievous narration is reminiscent of Paula Rego; the cabbage in The artist in his studio by Rego comes to mind. Cabbages don’t have the pop-cultural motto of lawyers, but they are significant in the history of painting. Leonora Carrington and Stanley Spencer both painted them. Perhaps that explains Katz’s interest?

There is an inherent humor in Katz’s paintings; everything is ice cold with a sense of trickery, works like banana peels waiting to trip you up. Blue and gold brushstrokes outline a face, reminiscent of Matisse’s face paintings, in Akgraph (Tobias + Angel), but closer inspection reveals that the eyes, nose and mouth spell out the word “mask” – the initials of Katz (Mrs. Allison Sarah Katz). A small dog, fish skeleton, and birds encircle the face, all of which sit atop a mist, reimagined Tobias and the Angel, a 15th-century altar painting by Andrea del Verrocchio.

Constantly playing with illusion and perception, Katz’s dreamlike works lie somewhere between the fantastical and the familiar. Some paintings are detailed, like Posterchild, a collage of random images similar to the online scrolling experience. Others are basic and simple, which can be shocking. someone else’s dream, depicting a naked man in a field of bulls, feels spiritless and lacks the energy present in the surrounding works.

Katz is at his best when it comes to layering ideas. A series of works are painted from the perspective of a throat, so that teeth and gums frame the subject. MASK is a self-portrait from a Miu Miu advertisement in which Katz starred last year. It’s interesting to see the mouth presented as an observation tool.

MASK.  2021.
MASK, 2021 by Allison Katz. Photograph: Collection of Alexander V Petalas

If these works form their own vascular system, it is not obvious where the heart is. His main interest is the art itself and the conventions and power of painting. That’s not to say it’s a show devoid of epiphanies, but it’s pointless to read too deeply into it. Much more fun to just indulge in the weird.

In the adjacent gallery, works by the Franco-Caribbean artist Julien Creuzet are on display in his first major UK exhibition since winning the Camden Art Center Emerging Artist Award at the 2019 Frieze art fair. Creuzet, 34, grew up in Martinique and now lives today in Paris. His practice encompasses sculpture, murals and digital film, but here freestanding and hanging sculptures take precedence.

From the show’s long title alone – “Too blue, too deep, too dark, we sank, winding every limb in motion. In the den, in the belly. Too bèlè, too gwo-ka, too biguine , too compas, too kadans, too calypso, too mazurka, too makossa, in my joyous sadness (…)” – it is clear that Creuzet is preoccupied with language (Derek Walcott and Linton Kwesi Johnson feature in the reading list notes from the exhibition file.) Although more poetic than expounded, the title evokes the themes of the show: the sea, musicality, the Caribbean, colonization.

The bright reds, greens and yellows are the first thing that strikes you, especially on a freezing January day. Creuzet transforms the space into a kaleidoscope of color and pattern, but it is the twisted configurations of the sculptures that are most compelling; they look like parents in conversation with each other. All of these asymmetrical shapes, resembling everything from gnarled skeletal bones and architectural frames to armor, are made from found objects – plastic, metal, wiring, rope, carpets, synthetic plants and torn fabric.

It’s hard not to see Creuzet’s work as symbolic representations of Caribbean islands whose histories overlap but whose postcolonial identities are still distinctive. We derive…, a large hanging sculpture whose shape mirrors the insignia on various Caribbean flags, is captivating, but these works work best when viewed as a collection.

Drift between the sculptures, music by the Franco-Senegalese singer Anais fills the gallery with an ethereal energy. A new film by Creuzet shows a digital figure dancing in the traditional bèlè style that evolved in Martinique after colonial rule.

    Too blue, too deep, too dark we sank... by Julien Creuzet at the Camden Art Center.
‘Like parents in conversation with each other’: Too blue, too deep, too dark we sank… at Julien Creuzet’s Camden Art Center. Photography: Rob Harris

Something about these carvings also conjures up images of shipwrecks washed up on shore. The plastic found speaks of the climate emergency and capitalism; Caribbean countries are the biggest polluters of plastic per capita in the world, and much of this waste ends up in the sea.

Detritus aside, Creuzet’s sculptures seem secretly alive – as if, if you closed your eyes and opened them, they could crawl across the room, morph into a new shape, or grow a new leg. Thus, these speculative works are not only about colonial history but also about evolution, construction and creolization. Here are sculptures on the formation and survival of diasporas in the midst of globalization.

Star ratings (out of five)
Allison Katz
★★★
Julien Creuzet
★★★★

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