Fashion, glamorous images and movie icons. The inspiration and appeal is universal, whether in order to expression fascination, criticism or even rejection.So universal that it could sometimes become tired or repetitive…so I was reassured to encounter a refreshing perspective during the Alex Katz exhibition at Timothy Taylor Gallery, at its opening last week. This was but a fragment of a long and impressive career; Alex Katz started working as an artist in the 60s and his distinctive style, figurative yet minimalistic, with his particular treatment of both portraiture and landscape has been seen in countless exhibitions throughout the years.
This is Alex Katz’s sixth solo exhibition at Timothy Taylor Gallery, and the sense of proximity with the artists and his works is palpable. It does not bite off more than it can chew, focusing upon specific works from the 70s, 80s and 90s that alternate between large portrait of fashionable yet introspective women, large open landscapes contrasting with dark grey city blocks.
Katz’s works focuses on flatness and superficiliality, working the surface without any attempt to create volume or thickness but rather a sense of magazine-cover glossiness and vibrancy of colour. The arrangement of the exhibition itself was not unlike a neat and sleek magazine layout, with one work per wall apart from the smaller works neatly juxtapozed at the entrance, spacious and light, drawing the eye in a slow and casual manner.
In a sense, his work reminded me a lot of comics…but not in the Roy Lichtenstein sense of the term. Rather, I’m thinking of the “ligne claire” bandes dessinees that were – and still are – a part of the Franco-Belgian style of comics, such as Hergé or Loustal.
This ensures as the name suggests a clear and thin line, a streamlined type of representation and overall simplicity of tones and colour…which does not make these works any less complex. The language of comics adds itself to that of fashion illustration…but also of cinema. A careful crop of the faces and storyboard aesthetic gives a careful and studied sense of composition to each work. Despite their static nature, a sense of time and duration is given to Ada Ada, from 1991, by creating a larger space in one of the vignettes representing his wife.
There is a distinct lack of dynamism throughout these portraits, and hardly any interaction from the characters themselves; however, is not one that falls short from the artist’s intentions but one that specifically corresponds to his aims. Expressivity and movement are left aside in favour of flatness and projection onto the canvas of a certain ideal of beauty and glamour that Katz started looking for ever since the 50s in movie stills and snapshots. Despite this fact most of these individuals remain both beautiful and anonymous faces, save for a few notable and intimate exceptions, such as the portrait of his wife, Ada. The contradiction of a type of portraiture taking known faces and making them universal and superficial? Perhaps, yet this does not take any of the charm away from these images whose even layering of pigment on the canvas draws the eye in with fascination Simplicity is mingled with small detail; a stylized face with a neat row of eyelashes, or the lustrous finish of a lipstick.
The paintings create an immobile, contemplative balance and the dynamism comes from Katz’s performace. In a video in one of the rooms, we are therefore witnesses to the elaborate creation of one of his largest works within the exhibition. The smooth gestures of the brushstrokes and elaborate, almost mesmerising layering of the would appear almost as a studious performance. It allows us to return to the painting as see it as more than a purely static screen.
I did not particularly prefer the landscapes or cityscapes such as Windows (1994) or Three Cows (1991), veering away from this elegant and sensitive type of portraiture, yet they did create a breathing space between the large faces dominating the room, superposing themselves to the overall theme of feminine poise and fashion. Next to the cows themselves, the best work to demonstrate this was Black Stockings (1987). Its series of elegant women walking in the same direction, looking towards us as if looking towards a camera has a mix of catwalk and The Sartorialist corresponding to the ever-present trend of fashionable people being captured in a street snapshot.
The panels hanging off the walls like a lavish and epurated fashion collage create a contrast between their nature as paintings and as cardboard-cutout like figures. And by walking alongside them while looking, we complement their immobile, meditative quality. All of this retains a taste for fashion and attitude that captures its time beautifully and clearly. As Katz puts so himself, when he was interviewed by Martin Clark, ” (…) I think style is the content of my painting, and style belongs to fashion. Fashion is in the immediate present, and that’s really what I am after in my work.”
This may be largely due to my newfound interest in fashion and its history…but regardless, this was one of my favourite exhibitions this month. I think that, paradoxically, works that centre to such an extent around their own flatness and two-dimensional nature can not always be flattered in publications – seeing them up close is the best way to grasp them. Therefore, I highly recommend visiting the exhibition lasting until the 17th of April at Timothy Taylor Gallery.