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Interview with Allison Katz

With the desire to get to know an artist’s work comes the impulse to stick one’s nose in. The thought comes to me after spending a few hours snooping around Allison Katz’s studio, in part because noses are one of a number of motifs that recur in the artist’s paintings and sculptures, peering slyly from behind corners, forming elegant, outlined flourishes, or lining up in a row, a jostling herd of colourful protuberances.

 

Puns and word associations abound in Katz’s work. It is not that she includes words in her paintings per se (though she may), or that she draws from specific literary sources. Rather, her work mines the gaps between words and images, the verbal and visual, drawing on the arbitrary, sometimes humorous slippages that overturn the conventions of language and visual representation.

 

Our conversation took place between two meetings at the artist’s studio, and over number of emails, Skype and phone conversations, while Katz worked towards an exhibition of new work at Kunstverein Freiburg.

Q

The White Review

— I’d like to start by talking about dialogue as a mode of communication. Can painting be a form of conversation? Or is it a monologue?

A

Allison Katz

— Painting is a conversation. I think of something I just read, a 1987 interview with Francesco Clemente, in which he says, ‘Art is the last oral tradition alive in the West; it is the only sort of oral tradition that is not lost.’ I completely agree. He was specifically referring to Alighiero Boetti, who exposed him to works and attitudes that he would never have had access to otherwise; but it was the conversational mode of transmission, his respect and love for this person, that allowed the exposures to transform him.

 

I’ve never believed in the purity of monologue, as in, self-contained expression. I’m preoccupied by the idea of ‘voice’ lately. Where it comes from, and how it’s a more apt qualifier for terms like sensibility, style, temper; because it implies dialogue, exchange and influence. I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s definition of poetry: ‘a voice answering a voice’.

 

I think I paint like I write, that is, I build around quotes, which is a conversation, in effect. It’s a way to bring the world in, as much as it is about getting an inner world out. Painting is for me one of the only actions where this interface exists.

Q

The White Review

— In literature, the scribbles and jottings of diaries, memoirs, and journals have sometimes been separated from canonical fiction as a ‘minor’ genre. Painting also has a complicated and sometimes problematic relationship to autobiography. In your work, one gets the sense that something fleeting and personal is being translated into a language that is public and shared, but also unstable and fugitive.

A

Allison Katz

— Because I work in a representational mode there is an assumption about narrative, that the work is ‘about’ something, but that’s not what motivates me. Themes and motifs are generated by firstly, some form of experience, and then, a method of translation. By that point language and chance have extended the terms. I hold onto the impossibility of any of this being worthy of painting, because by doing so you hook into a voice, rather than a subject, and that’s what ends up making the decisions.

 

Isn’t that the title of Yvonne Rainer’s biography? Feelings are Facts. That makes perfect sense. It’s not good psychoanalytic technique, but it engages with an aspect of art and life, similar to writing in a diary. The difference with jotting in a notebook and making a painting is that the painting can take a long time, so how to hold onto a glimpse? Focus on the voice instead. Then painting can ideally produce a hold or effect on a body in the moment, long after what ignited it.

Q

The White Review

— Speaking of the body, I’m intrigued by the way you’ve painted your own signature onto the eyes and mouth of a face, shifting it from its traditional place in the corner to centre stage. Is that a way of linking subjectivity to seeing and speaking?

A

Allison Katz

— Yes. It’s also a joke about how the signature functions as a stand-in, a form of identification, especially concerning an artist’s ‘signature style’ or brushmark, which is used to determine value. I try and upend those conventions. I became pretty fascinated by handwriting analysis and put my own through the process. Signing your name is especially revealing! I actually made some changes to mine after that, which supposedly can change your life – if you believe it – the link is that strong.

Q

The White Review

— There’s a wonderful text on Georges Braque by Francis Ponge that begins with a word play on the artist’s name and the French word ‘to steer’, braquer. The whole first paragraph consists of driving instructions to the reader, which parallel the act of reading. The instruction to ‘reverse’ occurs just as our eyes turn back to read the start of the next line (moving from right to left), and the paragraph ends with the word ‘stop’. Am I right that the title of your forthcoming exhibition contains a similar word play on your name?

A

Allison Katz

— Yes! The title is All Is On, which I chose for the way it implies everything is charged. It is also connected to illumination, the light at the core of painting’s materiality and metaphor. There is also this sense of a switch, on and off, a binary of visibility. More than any of this however, it is my name! My name contains this switch. It took a few years to see this. And a few more years to turn it on. Names are like DNA, one of the few things given to you. It’s like an inheritance, or destiny.

 

I have a primordial fascination with naming. I don’t perceive an image without a name, and this simultaneity is where the energy comes from. Expanding or inverting a definition is where visual immediacy can be born. Word breakdowns, etymology, puns, rhyming, slang. They are an essential sign that the mind knows it’s on. When I say that language is an influence on my experience, it’s not only in the form of conversation or literature, but in naming.

Q

The White Review

— You mentioned once that Emily Dickinson asked her editor only one question in regards to the few poems she shared, and that was, ‘do they breathe’? This made me think of your ceramic nose sculptures with their pronounced nostrils, their ‘holes’. Noses are made for breathing, and clay can be softened up and re-worked.

A

Allison Katz

— Those ceramic sculptures are actually two-faced: one side is a nose; the other side is an ass. I like the physical rhyme of their triangular forms, so I compressed them together. Openings and slits, it encapsulates an import-export model of the body: breath, excretion. These are some of the impossible functions I like to see paint perform, but they are all pretty much invisible.

 

In terms of reworking the clay, actually, once it is fired it cannot be re-entered! The glaze seals it. This is my attraction to working in ceramics. It has the opposite surface of a painting, which in my mind, appeals mainly for this sense of entry.

Q

The White Review

— I’m really interested by that processual element in your paintings. The feeling that you can break the skin and get back in.

A

Allison Katz

— I think painting has this amazing, vulnerable, open-door policy and quality of permission. You can technically always re-enter a painting, that is almost part of the pact of the material. It’s not ‘locked’. And as a viewer this may be part of the empathy that draws one into looking and feeling it. When you look at a painting, either your own or by someone else, made now or hundreds of years in the past, there is nothing stopping you (apart from the law) from carrying on with it. From picking up where the hand left off. You converse directly though a mark; it actually has the quality of a spoken word, because you can trace it in time and space.

 

That’s how I qualify the presence of works that move me. I feel as though I’m engaged in a private conversation, on intimate terms. This is for me an important way to consider questions of authenticity. It’s not about presenting an original or truthful self, or making a confession, it’s about tracing something in time that has a communicative weight of its own.

Q

The White Review

—  When I first came to your studio you mentioned the term ‘fugitive pigment’, which describes changes in colour that occur as a result of exposure to light. This led me to think about how we describe certain media, such as film, as ‘time-based’, and whether painting also has a temporal dimension to it.

A

Allison Katz

— I first encountered fugitive pigments as a teenager, in a painting by Joshua Reynolds entitled ‘Colonel Charles Churchill’, in which the subject’s face is completely blanched; it looked to me like he had painted a portrait of a ghost, which I thought was so conceptual, ha! The blurb next to the painting was very informative: ‘His ghostly face is the result of the artist’s experimentation with pigments, in this case, with the fugitive colour carmine over lead white to create flesh tones. It was an open secret that Reynolds’s colours were often unstable…’ I like that it was an ‘open secret’. He went beyond his virtuosity. The life was in the material as much as in the image.

 

I’m obsessed with integrating this fugitive element. I prefer to see my painting as a mirage, which is something I work towards, using certain colours, tones, layers and transparencies. It also begins by considering the four edges of the canvas as the first four lines, active locations, possible entrances and exits.

Q

The White Review

— In your painting ‘Shower’s Head Frontal’, beside a reference to David Hockney, I am reminded of the strange bathroom self-portraits by George W. Bush. I was so intrigued by that shower painting of Bush’s, because of the way it seems to transgress public/private, amateur/professional etc. Art history has many examples of paintings of women bathing by men. Maybe it’s the reference to ‘head’ in the title, or the link to Hockney, but this work strikes me as having a masculine sub-narrative.

A

Allison Katz

— I always thought Bush was making an unconscious Macbeth reference – trying to cleanse himself of guilt. But I doubt he sees it that way!

 

There are no bodies in the showers I paint; maybe that’s why they feel odd, like a set-piece. Of course the tradition of sexualising something ‘everyday’ and banal like washing was a way for the gaze to linger with permission, but it speaks to where the current of sexuality exists, in very quotidian gestures, not only in high drama. I’ve always appreciated how tiles and geometric grids in bathing places throw skin into sharp relief. Tangential to this is my fascination with the mechanism of the shower head, the way it shapes water into ready-made ‘brush marks’, or perfect-size painting strokes.

Q

The White Review

— On the subject of showers and fugitives, I’ve been reading about the escape of Mexico’s infamous drug lord El Chapo this week.

 

A

Allison Katz

— So fascinating! They are not allowed surveillance cameras in the bathroom of the cell, because of privacy laws. He takes ultimate advantage of this gap, and disappears into a tunnel beneath the shower. He escaped in a supremely beautiful way. It’s obviously corrupt, but still very cinematic. The mechanics of prison escape are interesting. Talk about entry and exit!
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Frances Loeffler is an independent writer and curator based in London.