As a teenage diary writer, I could never shake the sensation that I was fraudulently presenting myself. I seemed unable to resist making subtle (and not so subtle) alterations to the fabric of my story, so that everyday events appeared more exciting, and I more accomplished, than either really were. An afternoon fraught with the blue ache of unrequited affection became a cool time hanging out with friends, as if the paper itself offered up the possibility of a second skin. I came across a number of my old diaries while clearing out my old bedroom at my parents' house a few years ago, tucked away among an assortment of teenage detritus that I have no memory of acquiring, but which had somehow stuck around for years. An ancient can of beer, smutty postcards that were never sent, dust-covered stocking fillers. I opened one of these volumes, a scuffed silver hardback covered in skateboard stickers (the costume of a life which I never convincingly wore; my skateboarding career peaked at watching my brother practice on the corner of our street). Flicking through its pages I found that I had systematically crossed out every page in red ink, and scrawled “liar” in the margins. These annotations read like a terrible, embarrassing confession. That even in this most private of forums I could not, or did not know how to, tell the truth.
I met Allison Katz for the first time in her London studio in January, 2014. At the time of my visit she was a month away from an exhibition at Piper Keys, in which she was showing a series of portraits collectively titled “Adele,” after their sitter. Katz told me that she had known Adele for a long time, and had begun painting her when they both lived in New York. A number of the portraits were tacked up on her studio walls, each painted in oils on leather hides. Adele appeared on the leather in a variety of guises: in some as a barely there monochrome, more apparition than body; elsewhere sonorous, fully formed features stared out accusingly, as if I had interrupted some modern luminary in a moment of intense privacy.
I found something exhilarating about Katz and her paintings, some looseness of grip embodied in her brush work, which made every gesture appear as if on the move, every depiction a fleeting, half-captured thing. Looking at the Adele paintings was like following the heels of a pair of shoes, and forever watching them flash around the next corner. The figure: always present, but always just beyond reach. These portraits fast became the fabric of an exchange between Katz and I, centered around a mutual interest in the leaky borders of verisimilitude. Adele's (re)creation seemed to set up camp right at the heart of the complex territory between fact and fiction, those riddling poles on opposite sides of a mercury sea.
Since our first meeting early in the year, Katz and I have both recommended a number of texts for the other to read (an example, perhaps, of the unspoken portraiture involved in presenting oneself as an artist, or a writer: outlining one's profile in the spaces one locates between other lives and other works). Michael Taussig's essay, Fieldwork Notebooks arrived in my inbox a few days after we first met, an inaugural pin thumbed into the map of our dialogue. “Full grammatical sentences? Forget that. Just jot. And jot some more. Short-circuit language and me, the writer, along with it.” he writes, fingering the nether-land the notebook occupies, that mystical interstice between interior and exterior worlds. For Taussig the notebook is a fetish, in which one's thoughts are captured in all their sputtering vivacity. Compared to the neat, narrative arcs of prose, note-taking is much closer to the messy stuff of reality. I could see why Katz had sent the text my way. In substituting paper for skin, she had established on the leather hides a kind of extra-bodily notebook.
Katz was keen to stress that the portraits were not intended so much as a visual likeness of her subject, but as a collection of impressions, based on the encounter that took place when the sittings occurred. Nonetheless, part of me was hesitant about the connection she was eking out. There was something slippery about the paintings which didn't add up, not only in the changeability of the figure, but in the blatant conceit of painting skin on skin, which seemed to defy any viewer to take it at its word. And were these portraits not produced as artworks to be seen, and therefore too conscious of their audience to bare comparison to such an intimate pursuit? If for Taussig the notebook is a splash-back for the mind, Katz, as a painter, is surely in the business of fashioning the spatter. But for a portrait artist, the subject depicted is always paired with the personality inherent in the maker’s phraseology. It is here, in the idiosyncrasies of Katz's register, that the encounter comes to the fore. For in the jotting shorthand in which Adele is rendered Katz too is spirited in to the picture. She is manifest in Adele's every eye, nose, mouth, in her every difference, her every gradation of form. Life, in these portraits, belongs to that jot: not as a singular approximation of a figure but as a multiple, mutable thing.
A fortnight before the private view at Piper Keys, Katz emailed me. She was working with the gallery on the press release and was unhappy with the way the paintings were being introduced, first and foremost, as portraits of a friend. To frame the works in such a way would localize them to a comfortable vision of female intimacy; to restrict access to anything broader and less easy to digest. Nevertheless Adele the sitter and Katz were certainly close, so if not a friend, who, and of what nature, is the Adele in the paintings? One clue surely lies in Adele's introduction on first name terms alone. In A House of One’s Own, Janet Malcolm describes the biographer's tendency to use first name-terms when referring to their subject as an "insufferable familiarity." We speak of Virginia the woman, and Woolf the writer, and presume that an insight into the private life brings us closer to the public figure. If the biographer seeks to dive beneath the surface of the surname, returning laden with confidences gleaned from the personal depths—anecdotes, diaries, private correspondences—Katz offers Adele as pure undercurrent. She is to fiction as legend is to myth: Adele exists in her retelling, attached to reality by the unstable knowledge that her image derives from real life.
Allison and I (insufferably familiarity alert: we are now on first name terms) met again, this time at the British Museum, to discuss developing our correspondence in to a piece of writing. I was, as usual, fifteen minutes early—an undignified affliction I have tried to rid myself of over the years but which is unfortunately apparently chronic—and waited on a bench in the covered atrium, entering at the margins of various pictures as groups of tourists shuffled up beside me, posing for photographs in the vacant space. It seemed aptly allegorical for the text I was about to embark upon, and the relationships I, as a writer, establish with artists. Insinuating myself into the frames of other people’s artworks until, for a short while at least, our respective compositions, and the boundary between author and subject, begin to blur.
Allison was keen that I should see the Fayum mummy paintings. When she arrived we headed off to find them, only to discover that wing was closed for refurbishment. After a brief look around we relocated to a touristy cafe in a nearby square, where we sat beneath a cheap reproduction of the Mona Lisa, her mass-produced lips tickled with that famous half-smile, like a breeze twitching the hem of a curtain in an otherwise empty room. I asked Allison if she kept a journal. She answered, unequivocally, "yes." I avoid it, I said, because I am a typist and don't write by hand. Sentences go back and forth, in a process of deletion and resurrection that belongs to the keyboard and not the pen. The steady continuity needed to write from left to right and top to bottom is not a quality my skittish fingers possess. I didn't mention that by my sixteenth birthday, having lost all faith in the veracity of my writing, I ceased keeping a diary altogether. It seemed only fitting that I should reserve this confession for the page.
I googled the Fayum paintings when I got home, portraits of the deceased mounted at the heads of the mummies of Coptic Egypt. Scrolling through the multitude of thumbnails, I found that the dead of Fayum were sent to the afterlife a vision of eternal youth, sparkly eyed and downy lipped on the cusp of adulthood. But for all their otherworldliness, there is something absurdly literal about establishing one life directly on top of another. Beneath their timeless faces I pictured the inconstant and shriveled body, lying in wait like a bathetic punch line.
The leather hides on which Adele is painted are each left in the shape and color in which Allison acquired them. Most retain the irregular contours of flayed skin, spreading out where they have been cut from the back of the animal. One smaller piece stands out from the rest. It bears the regular marks of mechanical production: square and dyed yellow, with black polka dots screen printed across its surface, and bordered with the zigzag teeth marks of scissors or guillotine. Elsewhere, the uneven edges and earthy hues of the leather suggest some naturalness of form. But this small piece, with its explicitly manipulated surfaces, acts as a reminder that the skins, much like the figure rendered upon them, are a semi-fabricated entity. These preserved and repurposed organs make for a fine backdrop, a set of revised lives whose absence haunts the new skin and oil creations.
Over the past six months I have been reading my way through a trail of biographical works, which has wound its way from the staid tomes of Robert Graves's I, Claudius to O.J. Simpson's pseudo-fictional confession, If I Did It (a union of authors which, no doubt, has guaranteed me a front row seat in the innermost circles of literary hell). Late last year I alighted upon Andre Gide's Strait is the Gate, a novel based upon his early relationship with his cousin Madeleine Rondeaux, charting the story of Jerome, a naive and ambitious boy who devotes himself to his puritanical cousin Alissa. Eventually, as if it were unliveable, Alissa's asceticism is not only the source of Jerome's despair but her own death.
Gide married Rondeaux, a devout Christian, in 1895, his initial proposal—much like Jerome's—having been refused. She features regularly in his writing, under fictional names and finally on first-name terms in a biography of their relationship, Et nunc manet in te, written after her death and published after his. "Because she never talked of herself, I know nothing of her earliest personal recollections. She is present in all of mine," he writes, setting the tone for Rondeaux's entombment in his own literary tale. While Gide travelled widely, his surname becoming synonymous with literary fame and sexual notoriety, Rondeaux remained at home in France. He acknowledged she had no wish for public life, and yet he wrote of her in his own confessional style. Fiction, silkily articulating what was purposefully mute; Madeleine, a figure wrought by prose narrative.
Allison, knowing of my interest in biographical writing, recommended that I read Susan Sontag's posthumously published early diaries, Reborn. I came across the following entry by Sontag aged fifteen, and returned to by her again the following year: "All I feel, most immediately, is the most anguished need for physical love and mental companionship—I am very young, and perhaps the most disturbing aspect of my sexual ambitions will be outgrown—frankly, I don't care.” (In the margin, and dated May 31, 1949, SS adds the words: "Nor should you.") Funny, when leafing through the private turmoil of a stranger, to find that the biggest secret their diary reveals is its audience. As Sontag addresses herself from the margins, the fourth wall of the diary collapses: a reader calls out from the wings. No matter that it is Sontag herself, the illusion of interiority is shattered. Over a decade on from my own diary debacle, the discovery of this passage came as a cathartic sort of comfort, evidence that for every author there is always a reader, whether psychic or physical, some presence towards whom their words are inevitably bent. Perhaps my problem, after all, was not so much concerned with honesty, but an inability to suppress this outward looking aspect, in the face of which I capitulated to narrative portraiture.
I met with Allison on a sunny Sunday in Whitechapel, where her show opened a week earlier at Piper Keys. We were shown in to the gallery by one of its founders, heavily hungover from celebrating his birthday the night before. He led us down a corridor and through an unremarkable door, which opened out into a crisp white space, before disappearing (presumably to nurse his head). The gallery at Piper Keys is situated at the front of a larger industrial unit, and when we were alone Allison showed me round the back, where the remainder of the unit had been divided up into living quarters. Through corrugated plastic sheets, the contents of these rooms came into blurry focus. The gallery, then: a mask of sobriety behind which real life lay dormant, still, beneath the sluggish blanket of a Saturday night pulled up over Sunday afternoon.
Back in the show, the six paintings I had first seen in Allison's studio were on display. A seventh painting, new to me, was tacked up above the desk in the office. It showed Adele from above, off center, her face studiously blank, like a mid nineties album cover in which the band have been instructed not to smile. Her right elbow and the tips of her hair fan out, taking their shape from the rough edges of the leather. Foreground and background are explicitly linked, two partially transformed bodies operating in unison. Allison and I left Piper Keys, and sat for a while on a park bench across the road. She told me that a friend of both her and Adele, who had come to the opening night, couldn’t recognize the figure in the paintings. Didn’t know, even, that the paintings were all of the same person. This information sat strangely. It seemed inconceivable to us, who had spent so long thinking about Adele, that the show could ever exist without her in mind. But this observation, casually imparted by a friend, touched upon something crucial about the portraits: that their subject is not only, or not exactly, Adele. They are not so much paintings of a human subject, but paintings of the Janus head of portraiture, portraits of the portrait. A form that quivers between author, object, and subject, an impossible privacy that remains intimate even as it is addressed to the world. For leather, much like paper, is the perfect substrate for portraiture: one partially engineered life, upon which another is grafted.
Rosanna Mclaughlin is a writer and a curator based in London.