“A statement but also a question.” Lucy McKenzie – Reviewed

Tate Liverpool_Loos House _web

“If anything is clear, it’s that Lucy McKenzie is a voracious cultural omnivore.” Mike Pinnington responds to the artist’s first UK retrospective…

Feminism, social commentary, sport, pop culture, and political ideology; painting, film, architecture, fashion, and design. If anything is clear from the recently-opened Lucy McKenzie exhibition at Tate Liverpool, it’s that the artist is a voracious cultural omnivore. Bringing together more than eighty works that span roughly the last couple of decades, the exhibition demonstrates the remarkable breadth of subject matter that Glasgow-born, Brussels-based McKenzie has so far explored in her still-short career. This is a big, wide-ranging show, not all of which I’ll deal with here (but enough, I hope, to give a sense of its scale).

In her first UK retrospective, the eye is drawn, and the feet follow, first through the three-dimensions of Loos House (2013); an imposing set of structures that form a kind of floor plan. It is based on the Villa Müller, a house designed in 1930, and is named for its Austrian architect, Adolf Loos. Perhaps best known for his critique of ornamentation in useful objects – such as spaces for living – Loos nevertheless had no regrets in occasionally turning to the finer things, such as his signature Cipollino marble. McKenzie lampoons that double standard here with her trompe l’oeil marble-effect coverings – from the French meaning ‘deceives the eye’, this is an early hint at the part that old technique will play.

“The work spoke vividly to me”

Continuing through the space after this grand-stand opening, you’re met by a large painting of an interior, complete with wall-mounted phone, radiators (which you imagine clunking and burbling away ineffectually as you pass them) and – depressingly – mouldy, damp-stained walls. This is 2010’s May of Teck, part of a grouping of works referencing Muriel Spark’s 1963 novella The Girls of Slender Means. Exhibition text explains that in her book, Spark “documents the lives of impoverished young women living in the May of Teck Club situated in post-Second World War London. Located in a traditional townhouse, the club is divided into dormitories and small private rooms.”

Tate Liverpool_May of Teck_web

The work spoke vividly to me, as it will anybody else who has had the misfortune of grudgingly calling a place like this home. As the wall text continues: “McKenzie’s paintings convey how the middle-class home is transformed when its original inhabitants, large wealthy families, are replaced by modern dwellers…” Spark, no doubt, would be dismayed to find that little (if any) progress has been made, and that many such residences still exist up and down the land, Liverpool included.

“We find the artist addressing the linked iconography of sporting events and eroticisation of young, female bodies”

Following this too close for comfort brush with reality, aided and abetted by McKenzie’s skilful hand, we slip from this conjuring trick inspired by the literary imagination and bleakly quotidian real-life horror, into the worlds of sport and music. Here we find the artist addressing, in-part, the linked iconography of sporting events and eroticisation of young, female bodies. It’s unclear why these works (other than the chronology of their production) share wall space with those bearing the name of synth pop outfit Depeche Mode, but we are left in little doubt as to their intent, skewering as they do, the complex hypocrisy of sport as noble, international project.

Lucy McKenzie, Curious 1998_web

In one such work, Curious (1998), we see a runner bent over in the starting blocks; skimpy shorts leaving little to the imagination. It’s a lingering POV that will be familiar to anybody who has spent more than two minutes watching female sporting events, and hints at an ongoing, insidious, pervasive culture of misogyny; see the recent fining of the Norwegian women’s beach handball team for daring to refuse to play in bikini shorts.

“State propaganda doesn’t avoid the McKenzie lens, either”

Sporting endeavour as blunt tool of state propaganda doesn’t avoid the McKenzie lens, either. In the nearby Top of the Will (1998-9), we find – alongside historical photography and a mannequin in a gymnast’s outfit – staged photos of artist and friends. Dressed in the same 1970s-style Soviet uniforms as the mannequin, this is ‘pristine’, unblemished sporting excellence and state messaging in lockstep, to hell with the realities, or the consequences athletes could suffer in the short, medium, or long term – be they physical, psychological, or both. From the grim cynicism of the international sporting arena, it’s not a huge leap to murals – so often sites of populist appeal; here, McKenzie mines Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange for If It Moves, Kiss It I (2002).

The puerile humour of its graffiti – “Hmm!! Somebodys pinched me yarbles” – belies the fact that Kubrick’s mural had been based on Nazi-era works by German painter and designer Fritz Erler. The artist has interpreted this as “Kubrick trying to tell us that in this future world even forms of rebellion or disaffection, which graffiti represents, are repositioned and divested of their power.” Bleak, and yet not untrue.

“Politics, power, culture, and colonialism are all illustrated, and contested on maps”

In the section entitled Maps, McKenzie looks at how, through cartography, countries have always been divided up and identities variously forged, sidelined and/or overlooked. Politics, subjective power, culture, and colonialism – such things are, if you care to look, all illustrated, and contested on maps. For proof, look at a map of the African continent. Wonder at its straight lines, as it has been arrogantly and preposterously divided up by the then competing colonial powers, to disastrous real-world effect. One work in this section is much closer to home. Glasgow 1938–1966 (2017) depicts a city in post-colonial decline, its once booming but now-defunct tram systems, and standards of living in free fall while gang activity surged.

Quodlibet XIII (Janette Murray) 2010 © Collection Nicoletta Fiorucci Russo De Li Galli, London

As mentioned, McKenzie’s mastering and employment of trompe l’oeil – a skill she honed at the Van der Kelen-Logelain School of Decorative Painting in Brussels – is prominent. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in her Quodlibet works. Latin for “what you will”, these still-lifes depict amalgamations of various objects; in 2011’s Quodlibet XIII (Janette Murray), for example, we find an incredibly photo-realistic rendering of a cork board, pinned to which are painted knitting needles, wool, thread, and a scrap of paper complete with Biro scribblings – a kind of uncanny valley of inanimate, hyperreal, 2D objects.

“McKenzie addresses assumptions about female writers, their books and the tastes of those who read them”

In McKenzie’s hands, though, the art world’s version of smoke and mirrors is so much more than exquisite one-trick gimmicky parlour trick. Quodlibet XXXIX (2014), for instance, brings together books by Edna O’Brien and Violette Leduc – both of which had been subject to censorship for, respectively, sexual content and social critique, and depictions of homosexuality. In re-presenting these works of fiction afresh, McKenzie addresses lazy but prevalent assumptions about female writers, the content of their books and the tastes of those who read them.

One of the quietest, yet most powerful of the Quodlibet works, awaits us in the exhibition’s final section: Feminism. Quodlibet XXVI (Self-Portrait), made in 2013, presents an otherwise spartan noticeboard, on which is pinned a single letter. The skill with which it is rendered, right down to the ‘typed’, legible words (and redactions) on an A4 sheet of paper, expertly draws you in. “That letter,” you think to yourself, “what does it say?” A rendition of real-life correspondence, in it we find McKenzie addressing unnamed curators of an exhibition who had intended to include pornographic photographs of her taken by Richard Kern as artworks. One passage reads: “If this goes ahead… [it] would be an example of the inherent sexism and lip service to discourse that I position myself against.”

“The show emphasises that art, like life, should not be assumed to be straightforward, or linear”

The exhibition’s many sections, though, sometimes lead to periods of lag, a certain dissonance as you scramble to catch-up with the fleet of foot and mind McKenzie. Its threads can be difficult to disentangle, as you move between sections and works whose links and meaning aren’t immediately clear. On the other hand, this same quality emphasises that art, like life, should not be assumed to be straightforward, or linear. Indeed, it demonstrates McKenzie’s expansive approach to her practice, and her fluid movement between the supposed high and low of the ever-moving twenty first century cultural landscape.

Much like her letter written to those exhibition curators, the show is a statement but also a question, one about the positions we occupy, our perspectives, and whether we should rethink them. “Where do you stand?” it asks – something, McKenzie reminds us, we should all ask ourselves often.

Mike Pinnington

Lucy McKenzie continues at Tate Liverpool until 13 March 2022

Images, from top: Installation views of Lucy McKenzie at Tate Liverpool, 20 October 2021 – 13 March 2022 © Gareth Jones; Lucy McKenzie, Curious 1998 © Lucy McKenzie. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Cabinet London; Quodlibet XIII (Janette Murray) 2010 © Collection Nicoletta Fiorucci Russo De Li Galli, London

Posted on 08/11/2021 by thedoublenegative