A lifesize trompe l’oeil painting of the real-life lift at Camden Arts Centre opens this exhibition by the Canadian artist Allison Katz. Its doors are agape, revealing a deep silver box within. Its metal sheen gives the work a sense of photorealism, but it’s the 3D depth that implores you to step inside. It’s a fitting welcome for a show entitled Artery; the lift instantly stirs up thoughts of transportation, 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 featured in last year’s acclaimed Mixing It Up: Painting Today show at the Hayward Gallery. Artery, previously at Nottingham Contemporary, is Katz’s first solo UK exhibition, and arrives with bags full of her favourite recurring tropes and motifs: monkeys, eggs and more.
Katz has a thing about cockerels. In The Cockfather, a chicken’s body has been restructured to the shape of a dish that holds three eggs, a comical rumination. There are also lots of cabbages. She paints them in varying luminous green shades and sits them upright on tables. At the side of each veiny vegetable is the silhouette of a man’s face. They’re pretty images, but the joke is in working out what they are. Are these actually still lifes or portraits of the artist’s shy partner?
Katz’s strange and mischievous storytelling recalls Paula Rego; the cabbage in The Artist in Her Studio by Rego comes to mind. Cabbages lack the pop-cultural currency of avocados, but they are significant in the history of painting. Leonora Carrington and Stanley Spencer both painted them. Perhaps this explains Katz’s interest?
There’s an inherent humour in Katz’s paintings; everything is glazed with a sense of trickery, works like banana peels waiting to trip you up. Blue and gold brushstrokes make a face, reminiscent of Matisse’s visage paintings, in Akgraph (Tobias + Angel), but closer inspection reveals that the eyes, nose and mouth spell out the word “mask” – Katz’s initials (Ms Allison Sarah Katz). A small dog, fish skeleton and birds encircle the face, all of which sit atop a foggy, reimagined Tobias and the Angel, a 15th-century altar painting by Andrea del Verrocchio.
Ceaselessly playing with illusion and perception, Katz’s dreamlike works exist somewhere between the fantastic and the familiar. Some paintings are detailed, like Posterchild, a collage of random images akin to the experience of online scrolling. Others are basic and unfussy, which can be jarring. Someone Else’s Dream, depicting a naked man in a field of bulls, feels unspirited and lacks the energy present in the surrounding works.
Katz is at her best when layering ideas. One series of works is painted from the vantage point of a throat, so that teeth and gums frame the subject. MASK is a self-portrait from a Miu Miu advert that Katz starred in last year. It’s interesting to see the mouth presented as a tool of observation.
If these works form their own vascular system, it isn’t obvious where the heart is. Her primary interest is in art itself and the conventions and power of painting. That isn’t to say this is a show devoid of epiphanies, but it’s futile to read into it too deeply. Much more fun to just give in to the bizarre.
In the adjacent gallery, works by the French-Caribbean artist Julien Creuzet are on display in his first major UK show since winning Camden Art Centre’s emerging artist prize at the 2019 Frieze art fair. Creuzet, 34, grew up in Martinique and now lives in Paris. His practice encompasses sculpture, wall-based works and digital films, but here, it’s free-standing and suspended sculptures that take precedence.
From the show’s lengthy title alone – “Too blue, too deep, too dark we sank, meandering every moving limb. In the den, in the womb. Too bèlè, too gwo-ka, too biguine, too compas, too kadans, too calypso, too mazurka, too makossa, in my joyful sadness (...)” – it’s clear that Creuzet is preoccupied with language (Derek Walcott and Linton Kwesi Johnson feature in the reading list of the exhibition’s File Notes). Though more poetic than expository, the title does hint at the show’s themes: the sea, musicality, the Caribbean, colonisation.
Blistering reds, greens and yellows are the first thing to strike you, especially on an icy January day. Creuzet turns the space into a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns, but it’s the twisted configurations of the sculptures that are the most compelling; they look like relatives in conversation with each other. All these asymmetrical forms, resembling everything from knobbly skeletal bones and architectural frameworks to coats of armour, are made from found objects – plastic, metal, wiring, rope, carpet, synthetic plants and torn fabric.
It’s hard not to see Creuzet’s work as symbolic renderings of Caribbean islands whose histories overlap but whose postcolonial identities are still distinctive. We derive from it…, a large suspended sculpture whose shape reflects the insignia on various Caribbean flags, is engrossing, but these works function better when viewed as a collection.
Drifting between the sculptures, music by the French-Senegalese singer Anaiis fills the gallery with an ethereal energy. A new film by Creuzet shows a digital figure dancing in the traditional bèlè style that evolved on Martinique after colonial rule.
Something about these sculptures also conjures up images of wreckage washed ashore. The found plastic speaks to the climate emergency and capitalism; the Caribbean countries are the biggest plastic polluters per capita in the world, and much of that waste is deposited into the sea.
Detritus aside, Creuzet’s sculptures feel secretly alive – as though, if you close your eyes and open them, they might have crawled across the room, morphed into a new shape, or developed a new leg. In that way, these speculative works aren’t just about colonial history but also evolution, construction and creolisation. Here are sculptures about the formation and survival of diasporas amid globalisation.
Star ratings (out of five)
Allison Katz ★★★
Julien Creuzet ★★★★