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Issue 225

Kat Lyons Channels Nature’s Unrest

The artist’s debut UK exhibition at Pilar Corrias, Savile Row, delights through spinning environmental ethics with a grotesque sensibility

BY Gabriella Pounds in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 20 DEC 21

US artist Kat Lyons’s exhibition, ‘Early Paradise’, at Pilar Corrias’s second space on Savile Row, comprises 13 oil paintings – produced during the artist’s time spent living on a small livestock farm in Connecticut – which spin environmental ethics with a grotesque sensibility. 

Lyons’s paintings decentre humanity within her exploration of the Anthropocene. Rather than contemplating transhumanism and artificial intelligence, she considers how the weeping willow or the white terrier can become prescient science fiction. Like the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, Lyons creates realistic dreamscapes, wriggling with disgusting creatures. In Orchard (Monoculture) (all works 2021), lava-skinned berries grow from an infected tree, perverting nature. It’s like a hole has opened in the Earth, and I have fallen somewhere with a worm’s-eye view of the world. Dark slug trails and white webs of paint simulate manga-eyed fawns. In Ambassador, Xed-out bugs spiral through dark matter. 

Kat Lyons
Kat Lyons, Portrait of Lonely, 2021, oil on canvas, 46 × 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

Donna Haraway’s writing floats to mind. Like Haraway’s kittens in When Species Meet (2008), Lyons’s creatures dip between domesticated, feral and affective labour types. Portrait of Lonely imagines the emotional state of a retired racehorse. Its quiet palette and thick linework remind me of the medieval ponies in Magic: The Gathering (1993) card game illustrations or Leonardo da Vinci’s silverpoint drawings. In A Hill Is a Home Is a Mountain, cute ants emerge from rose-red, spiky strokes like hedgehog’s quills. An ant literally carries the weight of its diminutive dead pals. Destruction, environmental or otherwise, is the cage around this exhibition’s heart.

Lyons’s paintings emanate a rarer, more fun, chaotic goodness. Earthward Love, for example, illustrates a skinned cow far larger than a minotaur: all pink flesh and bone with eyeballs like melting black holes. Its own supervillain viscera drips beneath it. (I am particularly into the dark lavender tongue.) In Reservoir, a severed lamb resembles the holy lamb in Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432). These images of suffering could be interpreted as nihilistic. But, in her attempt to expand human awareness regarding non-humans, Lyons gestures to nature’s consciousness. 

Kat Lyons
Kat Lyons, Egg of Paracelsus, 2021, oil on canvas, 41 × 51 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

Lyons embraces emotions like anxiety and grief to overcome fatalism. A Winter Womb depicts a morose sow in translucent brushstrokes, the texture of posion-berry jam. Piglets emanate from her body to the stratosphere. Another sow, Colostrum (Bloodline), poses upended to reveal cute, pumpkin-like teats. Lyons laments the unethical reproduction of pigs in farming (the piglets are colourless, like baby ghosts) while highlighting fertility as sacred. Lyons’s empathic, ‘but how are the worms feeling?’ approach is endearing. However, there seems to be an increasing tendency among artists – inflamed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps – to seek melancholy in bright realms.

Egg of Paracelsus, for instance, shows the Earth consumed by fire. The painting refers to an eponymous renaissance toxicologist and cosmologist – immortalized in a 1615 portrait by Peter Paul Rubens – ‘fat Paracelsus’. Paracelsus theorised the universe was an invisible-flame-emitting egg. Lyons transcends the taste for catastrophism in figurative painting and broader contemporary art with this jest. Too many artists focus on the Earth’s present nadir – the painfully real doomsday glow – rather than imagining a new planet. But ‘Early Paradise’ pictures an Earth beyond Anthropocene despair. Lyons suggests future meaning is blissed-out amid nature and the human imagination.

Kat Lyons's ‘Early Paradise’ is at Pilar Corrias, Savile Row, until 22 January 2022.

Main image: Kat Lyons, Earthward Love (detail), 2021, oil on canvas, 1.6 × 2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Pilar Corrias, London

Gabriella Pounds is a writer and editor based in London, UK.