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Review: Artery at Nottingham Contemporary

29 June 21 words: Alex Stubbs

Nottingham Contemporary showcases twelve paintings from artist Allison Katz in her new exhibition, Artery... 

Allison Katz, Artery. Installation shot at Nottingham Contemporary, 2021. Photo Lewis Ronald

Nottingham Contemporary reopens its doors to Allison Katz’s Artery, the artist’s first major UK solo show and a thrilling journey into a bizarrely unique and surreal world of painting. Katz painted all the works we see in Artery during the tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic. Navigating those now all too familiar national and international lockdowns, the resulting works are both powerfully loud and delicately quiet. They pull us in towards worlds that are stimulating and bare at the same time, as Katz explores the nuances of language and wordplay, tropes which have always been at the centre of her work. 

For an institution regarded so fondly for its inclination towards bold and groundbreaking visual installations, witnessing Katz’s painting extravaganza at Nottingham Contemporary is a unique experience. Often we might consider this gallery a bastion of inaccessible contemporary art; a culturally-important community hub, but one that rarely allows its mask of sophisticated high-brow art to slip. Through her twelve large-scale paintings, which are each given ample room to breathe in the gallery, Katz is fully aware that she occupies a space not normally reserved for the traditions she is exploring.

For Katz, arteries are the systems and networks that connect our everyday lives. They bind together places and people, reflecting the ways in which we communicate with ourselves and with each other. Nottingham itself is an artery in Katz’s life. It’s where her grandparents met in the 1940s, and it’s a city Katz returns to in order to deliver a requiem of sorts. “Without Nottingham,” she says, “I wouldn’t exist.” Arterial channels are, in Katz’s work, caught in a dichotomy of the accessible and inaccessible; of the you and the me, of what is held within and what is projected outwards to the viewer. 

Borrowing candidly from Andre Derain’s 1943 woodcut, Katz paints her subjects from within the framing of an open mouth. It’s her way of revealing something to us that would otherwise be hidden and concealed. Using a palette of colours that are so strikingly saturated, looking through this fleshy and abstracted window, we must imagine ourselves to be transported to another world. It’s a world where cockerels are given centre stage - quite literally in Stage Cock (2020), where an uncertain but colourful cockerel stands quite literally on the stage - and memories of gallery visits and canalside walks are remembered as surreal memories drawn from Katz’s own subconscious.

Artery is a powerful display of colour and brushstrokes and textures

Katz isn’t afraid to stray further into the metaphysical world. In Elevator II (2021) she depicts the inside of one of the gallery’s elevators to scale - and then places the canvas directly next to the subject itself. Again, she’s breaking through the mask that has long protected the unseen and unspoken places of the gallery. Bringing these spaces firmly into the arena of spectacle, Katz is offering the viewer a chance to see what really goes on behind the scenes. “I would never have painted the elevator if I wasn't able to show it next to the elevator,” she says. “It would have lost all its energy to me.” 

Indeed, this is an exhibition packed full of energy. Organic objects - cockerels, eggs, rice - are woven into the fabric of Katz’s paintings alongside the more synthetic and human-made materials such as the elevator. Colour jumps off the canvas, and the size of each canvas means that this is an exhibition which doesn’t struggle with presence. Having curated the exhibition herself, Katz is aware of how important each piece is: “Sometimes it's not always in the artwork; it's in the space in which you're allowed to see or consume or engage with the artwork.”

From the moment you step through the doors into the gallery, the experience that follows is one of escaping into Katz’s mind. You realise quickly that this is an exhibition that enjoys playing with reality in a way other exhibitions struggle to do so. Implications of art history, the traditions of painting, and psychoanalysis are all living and thriving in the same space; Katz’s skill as an artist and her desire to take risks in her work has never been so clear.

The motif of the chicken and the egg, recurring characters in Katz’s universe, also make an appearance in The Cockfather (2021) and 2020 (Femoral) (2021). “Maybe painting is cock, or big painting is just stupid cocks,” she says. “It's all those traditions wrapped up. Maybe I'm making fun of it; maybe I want to be it. Maybe I am it already, maybe the medium is it. Maybe it's none of this and it's just like a totally empty symbol that we project everything on to.” If Katz is known for anything, it’s for her humorous nature and tendency to lean on linguistic and visual tropes in her work. And yet, as unapologetically crude as her work can be, there’s something undeniably unique and original that, even when repeated, says something fresh each time.

Artery is a powerful display of colour and brushstrokes and textures. Here, we see Katz displaying her ability to draw out humour and wordplay from a visual art form in a refreshingly conceived exhibition. At the heart of this exhibition is a reaffirmation that painting can be a contemporary art form. With each work, Katz proclaims loudly that painting hasn’t gone anywhere in the last 50 years.

Artery is at Nottingham Contemporary until Sunday 31 October. 

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