Lucy McKenzie on cats, clothes and Brexit


ART in the 90s. If it wasn’t Damien Hirst who electrocuted flies and trapped sharks in formaldehyde, it was Douglas Gordon who was slowing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho so much that it took him 24 hours to complete.

Concept art was there. The installation was king. And yet, some artists still painted pictures.

Lucy McKenzie was one of them. “People have smeared things on the walls for thousands of years,” she reminds me. “It’s not going anywhere.”

Today he goes to an art gallery by the River Mersey. We are on the fourth floor of Tate Liverpool and McKenzie is looking around 30 years of wall work. The Glasgow artist, who now lives in Brussels, is here for the press day of his first major UK retrospective.

She’s pretty happy about it. Or at least I think it is.

“Of course, I am very grateful that there is interest. And it takes so much effort to bring all this work together.

“But you might think from the work that I’m a nostalgic person. But when it comes to my own work, not particularly. I am already thinking of a show in January.

She looks around the room we are in. “But what’s great is being able to see things that would never have been brought close before and I take it as a learning exercise to see what kinds of threads have gone through the job.”

Kingo in “Ruby” dressing gown, 2011 © Lucy McKenzie. Image courtesy of the artist

There is a little. Cats, clothes and culture to begin with. A love of trompe l’oeil, a fascination with trying out other people’s styles, a willingness to engage in commercial art forms, be it writing book covers, the love of marriage a conservative form with a subversive message, a bubbly, punk spirit that may not be obvious at first glance, but is present both in her work and in McKenzie herself.

It’s a Monday morning and the artist herself offers me a guided tour of the exhibition. In passing, we will talk about her life in Brussels, Brexit, the male gaze, Atelier EB, the fashion label she set up with her designer friend Beca Lipscombe and how this whole adventure began for her in Glasgow in early 90s.

McKenzie caused a stir right out of the door. Around the turn of the century, his work was included in the British Art Show and as part of Beck’s Futures in 2000, a year after he started exhibiting.

McKenzie was really part of the Glasgow scene at the time. Franz Ferdinand played the first concerts in her studio and the city comes back to her work again and again, in the form of maps she created or sketches of places she used to go.

But at the start of this century she moved to Brussels and now really enjoys the distance between the past and the present. “I found it to be a very useful way to be a foreigner,” she says.

“I have a really wonderful work situation there. I have a studio and I am renovating this big house, so I have no plans to leave.

His early work played with ideas about power and geopolitics in sport. She painted striking fractured images of gymnasts like Olga Korbut.

HeraldScotland: Untitled 1997 © Lucy McKenzie Courtesy of the artist and Cabinet LondonUntitled 1997 © Lucy McKenzie Courtesy of the artist and Cabinet London

For Top of the Will (1998-99), she and her friends even dressed up as Olympic athletes.

“The idea was to combine all this official photography with images of normal people sitting a little tired,” she says.

It was a way of contrasting the symbolism of such events with the political reality they represent. “Like the World’s Fair, it’s a very passive-aggressive geopolitics,” she suggests.

In the next room, we stand in front of one of his many paintings by Quodlibet. They offer a distinctive interpretation of trompe l’oeil, rendering familiar objects in an ultra-realistic way. This is a painting of a bulletin board with knitting patterns, scraps of writing paper, a pair of knitting needles and yarn and a photocopy of an annotated map of Scotland. This is an example of the bravery of McKenzie’s technical skill.

“This is a poster board that I did as a portrait of the woman who did all the hand knitting for us for our collection,” says McKenzie, referring to her work with Lipscombe. “And she just gave me a bunch of stuff that was related to her job.”

It indicates a series of points on the “photocopied” map. This is where the women who knitted for them lived. “The chronic knitters,” she says. “These are women who have to knit because if they didn’t, they would smoke each other to death.”]

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

The canvas next to it has a blue background on which she has placed letters from the Royal Bank of Scotland and HMRC. “I just got photocopies and just pasted them into the picture so it wouldn’t be hand painted.”

The reason? She was worried that people would marvel at the style and not the content. “You build a system so you can undermine it and say, ‘No, it’s not interesting because it took hundreds of hours to do. Actually, I have something to say.

So what are you saying here, Lucy? “It’s essential to have a fashion brand. It’s boring grunt work. It’s not about beautiful Russian girls on a catwalk, it’s about f ****** RBS and what a pain in the a *** they are.

What becomes clear is that McKenzie’s work is fun but also useful. She likes cunning and surprise, but she wants to talk about the world around her. It may have come from his childhood. Growing up art was the very air she breathed, she said.

“But still in balance with other things. My parents were part of the anti-nuclear movement. My mother worked for Women’s Aid. So he’s always been connected to other things too. And it was very sociable.

“I learned at a very young age that art was not something you could be excluded from. It’s a very lucky thing to feel.

She has been in Liverpool for two weeks now. His first real visit to the UK since Brexit.

“Now, being here, I just feel sad. At least in Scotland you have that bat-of-hope squeak. There are still things in the game that could change drastically in Scotland if you think about independence.

“But you are just wondering what the future of England is? ”

In the last room of the exhibition are two paintings of the same subject painted 10 years apart. They show a woman sitting under a reproduction of a pornographic panel by Italian cartoonist Milo Manara. One was missing for years so she decided to repaint it.

“It was based on real experience,” she says. She was invited to a fancy dinner at a private art foundation and when she arrived she found the room decorated by Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series which he directed with pornstar Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina.

“I remember turning to the girl next to me and we looked at each other with exhausted eyes. It is the backdrop to the art world. People think it’s perfectly normal to eat under an asshole, Cicciolina’s asshole.

“So I wanted to do something that sums up this feeling of fatigue. ”

She looks around at the work in this room, the work in the gallery. “We all need to define what we consider to be enjoyable.

HeraldScotland: Lucy McKenzie at Tate Liverpool.  Photography Brian RobertsLucy McKenzie at Tate Liverpool. Photography Brian Roberts

“I work with all of these things because it turns me on. Silk, cats and dresses.

“I have such deep memories of my encounter with art when I was young and it blew me away and it was always about things that were a little weird, a little kinky and very feminine.

“And the great thing about a show like this is that a little kid can see something and think it’s weird and not be able to get it out of his head and can make him feel good about it. ‘love cats and dresses. ”

Lucy McKenzie continues at Tate Liverpool until March 13, 2022

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