Pompeii Circumstance (Milk glass)
Pliny the Elder’s Natural History provides an account of the possible origin of painting. Whilst remaining clear that this history is uncertain, Pliny explains that among the Ancient Greeks “all agreed that painting began with tracing an outline around a man’s shadow.” The shadow in question in this origin story is that of the apprentice working at Butades of Sicyon’s pottery workshop in Corinth, with whom Kora (Butades’ daughter) had fallen in love. On the night that the young man was to complete his apprenticeship and leave, Kora drew his profile onto a wall, tracing the shadow of his face thrown by a burning lamp, as a way to hold on to his image. A figure generated for, and by, its absence. Pliny goes on to add that Butades pressed clay into the profile, creating the first-ever example of wall relief, preserved for centuries in the Shrine of the Nymphs. Painting is presented in this story as a process able to generate intersections across different sensorial and material realms. It reminds me of how the etymology of “figure” has roots in the Latin word figura, which in turn derives from the verb fingĕre, to mould. The gestural component of moulding as “making” in relation to the creation of images expresses a sense of expanded time—a potential entry point into painting through its ontological event-hood and its capacity to affect reality. Artist Allison Katz brought Kora’s myth to my attention in the context of conversations we were having as part of her Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters – Digital Fellowship research. The powerful connection between presence and absence as inextricable states in Pliny’s account may offer a possible approach to read contemporary Pompeii as an image whose presence speaks also of its absence. Similarly to how fragments embody both endurance and loss at once, the well-preserved shattered ruins of the ancient city outline the shadow of a time that is long gone. How can one engage with the multi-dimensional epistemic gap between what things stood for then, and what they stand for now? To navigate the layered junctures between signifiers and signified thousands of years apart, one must pursue a dialogic path. Allison Katz has often described painting as a conversation—embracing the notion of voice over style, the artist situates her work as a mode of transmission implying dialogue, exchange and influence. Best known for her figurative paintings combining varying registers, allusions, intentional slips and witty wordplays, Katz pursues fluidity in her medium, moving from the very familiar to the deeply enigmatic. Shadows of the artist’s vast and sophisticated trans-temporal references take centre stage so that her painted subjects are not Platonic cave-projections of false experiences but rather genuine declarations of ambiguity and non-linear associations. Textual and visual representations come together in her canvases as more than the sum of their parts, making her images elusive yet always generous. Exploring the depth of worlds through repetition and interference is part of Katz’s process—at times, she and her own work are the subjects of re-presentation and recontextualization, in other instances art history provides the substratum of truth. Introducing her practice into the context of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii has opened up lines of inquiry which join the past and present lives of the site in its (often paradoxical) multitude of symbologies and expressions in the present day: from being a charged and revered repository of Ancient Roman culture, subject of centuries of global scholarship, to performing as a contemporary mass tourist destination; from evoking the fragility of the human condition to being a linguistic construct in the word ‘Pompeii.’ Embarking on this new research has brought Katz to confront questions beyond her ongoing interest in Ancient Roman painting—which had already manifested in some of her earlier works such as Be nice (2022), Cocteau (2021), and The Four Styles (2011). Upon visiting Pompeii in September 2022, the artist became fascinated with the complex spatial narratives articulating the relationship between private and public life across all cultural realms of the city, including art and architecture. The choreography of the gaze within Pompeian houses seems to guide the imagination in multiple directions, at times toward the absolute (a glimpse at the sky’s infinity through an open-roof courtyard, or a three-walled living room facing the open sea), other times toward depictions of the mundane. Katz’s contribution to the Digital Fellowship provides a first attempt at articulating a reflection on what it means to engage with the complexities of Pompeian heritage and the legacy of its artistic styles that determined foundational codes of form, beauty and iconography in the Western art historical discourse. Collapsing on the same plane a variety of sources, Katz created Pompeii Circumstance: Posters 1–7, a new series of seven posters realised through a process of graphic design and digital collage that brings together her own photographs taken during her September 2022 visit to Pompeii and its archaeological storage units; book pages from old Pompeii catalogues; the eyes of a young girl from a 1904 painting by Paula Modersohn-Becker; and Katz’ own paintings, recently shown at the Venice Biennale 2022. Information such as her name and the URL of the Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters website are spelled out using a number of Pompeii-inspired internet-sourced fonts as well as a hand-written script whose trailing lines are a variation on Pompeian wall graffiti. The poster is a signature medium for Katz. Since 2010 the artist has made over one hundred fifty posters for her exhibitions, playing with the meta-possibility of announcing her work through her own work, and extending the exhibition’s presence beyond the finite duration of a temporary display. Katz playfully engages with Pompeii Commitment as a set of conditions—‘circumstances’—generating the works. With her title Pompeii Circumstance, the artist nods to the site-specificity of the context she was invited to operate within. At the same time, she also triggers further ramifications of hints and connections through assonance with the phrase ‘pomp and circumstance’. First coined by Shakespeare in the XVII century, this idiom is spoken by the General in Act 3 of the play Othello, to mourn the loss of his glorious military occupation. The expression ‘pomp and circumstance’ has evolved through time to refer to ceremonious zealousness doomed to decay, as well as to excessive, out-of-place grandeur. Affiliating this partly derogatory expression to her own work, Katz acknowledges, with self-awareness and humour, the challenge of being a contemporary artist attempting to make work in/for a hugely charged site like Pompeii. Equally, she evokes a precise history surrounding the notion of tastefulness, as the lifestyle of the Ancient Romans has often been read in terms of pompousness and decadence by the modern world. An additional layer is finally brought to Katz’s new series of posters by installing and photographing them in different locations on site at Pompeii. A selection of these shots is presented on pompeiicommitment.org, displayed in the sequence of a walk through the ancient streets and houses, beginning at the top of Via dell’Abbondanza to the Forum, via the House of the Golden Cupids. I am still digesting the images resulting from this temporal short-circuit: to a certain degree, Katz’s posters blend in with the original frescoes, bricks and plaster of the ancient walls; however, they do not pursue a sentimental attachment or nostalgic sense of belonging. Rather, they implicate both the past and the present in the role of how Pompeii plays itself. SB
Pompeii Circumstance: Posters 1-7, 2023
artist’s posters shot in situ at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, January 2023
Photo Amedeo Benestante
Courtesy the Artist and the Archaeological Park of Pompeii
1, 9, 13, 20.
Pompeii Circumstance (Hippolytus), 2023
2, 14, 18.
Pompeii Circumstance (Mask, from the House of the Large Fountain), 2023
Pompeii Circumstance (Monopodium), 2023
Pompeii Circumstance (Milk glass), 2023
5, 11, 15.
Pompeii Circumstance (Be nice), 2023
6, 7, 17.
Pompeii Circumstance (Via dell’Abbondanza), 2023
10, 12, 19, 21.
Pompeii Circumstance (Maenad in the Barracks), 2023
Home Page Image: Allison Katz, Pompeii Circumstance (Via dell’Abbondanza), 2023, artist’s poster shot in situ at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, January 2023, Photo Amedeo Benestante. Courtesy the Artist and the Archaeological Park of Pompeii
Allison Katz (b. 1980, Montreal, Canada) engages with the complex and at times contradictory nature of contemporary artistic production, embracing the ambiguity of communication with a playful and inquiring touch that expands the conventional notion of an artist’s “signature style.” Katz’s work operates in a poetic space between mirror and mask, between revealing and concealing what is presented, calling attention to the multiple layers of consciousness that reside in a painting’s surface and subject. Allison Katz studied Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal and received her MFA from Columbia University in New York. Recent exhibitions include: The Milk of Dreams, 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia (2022); Artery, the artist’s first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom at Nottingham Contemporary, which then traveled to Camden Art Centre, London (2021-2022). Additional significant institutional solo exhibitions of her work have been organized by: MIT List Center for the Arts, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Oakville Galleries, Ontario; and Kunstverein Freiburg. Notable recent group exhibitions include: Mixing It Up, Hayward Gallery, London; The Imaginary Sea, Fondation Carmignac, Porquerolles; Maskulinitäten, Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn; Paint, Also Known as Blood, Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; and Puddle, Pothole, Portal, SculptureCenter, New York. A comprehensive monograph on Katz’s work was published by JRP|Editions, Geneva in 2020.