BY Aaron Peck in Features | 20 AUG 20

The Exquisite Maximalism of Lucy McKenzie

With a retrospective at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst, McKenzie gleans political ideologies from the polishes and veneers of our world

BY Aaron Peck in Features | 20 AUG 20

On an April evening in 1902, the sound of gunfire and explosions echoed around the brick buildings of the Marolles district in Brussels. The violence originated from labour unions clashing with police near the Maison du Peuple, a large Victor Horta-designed art-nouveau building, completed in 1899, at the neighbourhood’s eastern edge. Its elegant lecture hall had quickly become a centre of the radical left in western Europe. (Guest speeches were given by Marxist Rosa Luxemburg and socialist Jean Jaurès.) In Brussels, Horta’s other masterpieces – townhouses – pepper the city, many financed by the fortunes of those who had profited off the genocidal pillaging of the Congo Free State, seized in 1885 as the personal property of King Leopold II, and eventually designated a colony of Belgium in 1908. The Maison du Peuple, demolished in 1965 to make way for an apartment tower, unexpectedly came to symbolize the mid-century obsolescence of both the early-20th-century labour movement and art nouveau, more often associated with fin-de-siècle decadence. This dual nature of art nouveau in Brussels is central to subjects explored by the artist Lucy McKenzie and references to the Maison du Peuple have, perhaps unsurprisingly, appeared in her work.

McKenzie, who is originally from Glasgow, has lived in Brussels since 2006. As with Horta’s art nouveau, she often chooses to represent aesthetics that – as she said in her 2015 lecture for the symposium ‘Interior Design: Dead or Alive’, at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) – ‘contradict current orthodoxies for styles, like mid-century modernism’. Constructivism, art deco, postpunk, the Memphis Group: McKenzie mines aesthetic movements that run counter to what is now widely regarded as ‘minimalism’. Instead, she presents us with a collagist maximalism: an art-deco chair in neon colours, a track suit with Ancient Greek motifs, a faux-marble filing cabinet. Opting for démodé places or styles and a left-of-centre ethos, McKenzie’s work examines the tensions between politics and visual culture that are often left unexposed.

Lucy McKenzie
Lucy McKenzie, Quodlibet XXVII (Unlawful Assembly I), 2013, oil on canvas, 90 × 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York, and Cabinet, London

The artist is perhaps best known for her trompe-l’oeil painting series ‘Quodlibet’ (2009–ongoing) – named after the architectural term for a trompe-l’oeil installed on a wall to give the illusion of further spatial depth. She studied the method in 2007–08 at the Van Der Kelen Institute in Brussels, which advertises itself as the only school teaching traditional decorative painting techniques. McKenzie applies what she learned directly to walls, furniture and canvas. In some instances, such as Quodlibet XXXVII and XXXVIII (both 2014), she mounts on a table top a trompe-l’oeil of books (dime-store paperbacks of modernist classics, often by women writers such as Jean Rhys or Edna O’Brien), so that, from certain distances, the materials appear to be more than depictions on the surface.

In Quodlibet XXVII (Unlawful Assembly I) (2013), McKenzie renders the background of the canvas to look like a corkboard. In the foreground are a variety of papers, which appear to be thumb-tacked to the board. We see a paperback copy of Muriel Spark’s The Mandelbaum Gate (1965) dangling from a string, a printout of the tuition costs for a crime-writing class at New York’s Center for Fiction, an email from a gallery director to Glaswegian painter Alan Michael (with whom McKenzie collaborated on a potboiler crime novel), a map of the Sicilian island of Stromboli and newspaper clippings, one of which seems to be an image of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The subtitle alludes to another object depicted: a dangling copy of Unlawful Assembly (2013), the detective fiction Michael and McKenzie co-wrote for Fiorucci Art Trust’s ‘Volcano Extravaganza’ – a site-specific installation on Stromboli. 

Atelier E.B (Beca Lipscombe & Lucy McKenzie), Faux Shop, 2018, oil on wood, acrylic-coated milled foam, carpet, wooden structure, textiles, 4.5 × 2.2 × 3.1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York, and Cabinet, London

The ‘Quodlibet’ series is less a conceptual structure than a loose means through which McKenzie can frame all of her work: video, film, curation, installation, art books and sculpture. The paintings can be understood as pretexts for larger, often collaborative projects. McKenzie has worked with a variety of other artists: Lucile Desamory, Birgit Megerle and Paulina Olowska, to name but a few. One sustained collaboration, dating back to 2007, is the fashion brand Atelier E.B (Edinburgh Bruxelles), with fashion and textile designer Beca Lipscombe. Consistently refusing to be co-opted by high fashion, the project instead tends to be shown in the context of contemporary art, with Atelier E.B exhibitions being held at London’s Serpentine Galleries and Paris’s Lafayette Anticipations in 2019. McKenzie, however, prefers to say that she works in visual culture rather than in art, which, she has claimed, allows her to explore elements that are often excluded from so-called high art – such as fashion display, architecture and industrial design – though today those distinctions seem less rigid than they may have at the beginning of her career in the late 1990s.

McKenzie maintains a deep connection with Scottish modern and contemporary art, through the influence of former teachers and various collaborators. Her father was a teacher at the Glasgow School of Art. Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh between 1896 and 1909, in a unique combination of arts-and-crafts and art-nouveau styles, the school is arguably Scotland’s most recognizable modern building, although sadly it was almost entirely ravaged by fire in 2018. In a 2020 interview with Astrid Vereycken for TIM magazine, McKenzie describes the experience of wandering alone through its basement and attic on Saturdays as a child. Her parents also had a collection of Scottish art, the history of which she absorbed growing up. The work she has just completed, which will be exhibited later this year at Galerie Buchholz, re-creates, in trompe-l’oeil, art from her parents’ collection – much of it by a lesser-known generation of Scottish artists from the 1970s and ’80s. She has also cited artists Cathy Wilkes and Victoria Morton as influences, both of whom were her teachers at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee.

Lucy McKenzie
Lucy McKenzie, Rivera (just the Capitalists, just the Women, in Lanvin and Ferragamo), 2019, oil on canvas, 2.5 × 3 m. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York, and Cabinet, London

As a student in Dundee, from 1995 to 1999, McKenzie was further drawn to the work of 1970s and ’80s Scottish muralists – predating the neoconceptualism of artists such as Douglas Gordon – and merged this style with that of the 1980s downtown New York postpunk scene. If there is an artist whose work resembles McKenzie’s, it is fellow Scot Ian Hamilton Finlay, with whom she had a two-person show at Vienna’s Theseus Temple in 2010. Hamilton Finlay, who died in 2006, explored the fraught connection between fascism and modernism through garden design, text art, sculpture and concrete poetry; his work is reminiscent of McKenzie’s own gesamtkunstwerk of design, art, architecture and fashion, which explores the sometimes-sinister ideological implications of visual culture. This ‘Scottishness’ is noteworthy not because of the soft nationalism it implies but because it outlines the culture in which her thinking and ethos developed. In a discussion published in the catalogue for the 2007 exhibition ‘Noël sur le balcon/Hold the Color’ – a collaboration between McKenzie and Olowska at Sammlung Goetz in Munich – the artist stated: ‘Soft nationalism has been a powerful component in our work. It’s one I feel has to be seriously questioned now.’ One way in which she continues to interrogate this attitude is by bridging regional and cultural gaps and bringing together different periods and styles – an aspect of her work that is informed by her move to Belgium. 

In 2006, when McKenzie relocated to Brussels, it was not yet a zeitgeist destination for contemporary artists. There is, I suspect, something more in McKenzie’s choice to live in Brussels than its geographical centrality and supposedly laissez-faire (or, perhaps more accurately, laissez-tomber) attitude – something other than the surprisingly similar aesthetic shared by the Belgian capital and Glasgow. It has to do with the way that Brussels – and Belgium, in general – is often placed in the diminutive. As the Belgian critic Simon Leys wrote in 2007 of his home country (in the essay ‘The Belgianness of Henri Michaux’): ‘Europe has a good many small countries, but this is the only one, seemingly, to take pride in its exiguity. It proclaims its smallness, boasts of it with satisfaction, basks in it, drapes itself in it like a flag.’ 

De Ooievaar
De Ooievaar (The Stork). Photograph: Kristien Daem

In 2014, McKenzie purchased De Ooievaar, or ‘The Stork’, a 1935 art-deco villa on the Flemish coast near Ostend – though she continues to maintain a residence and studio in Brussels. Her desire is for De Ooievaar to function not only as a studio, but as a thriving cultural space for artists and other producers. The building, designed by Jozef De Bruycker, a Flemish nationalist, remained structurally intact, so McKenzie set out to renovate the interior to the original specifications. She has, in multiple interviews and artist talks, discussed her interest in the fact that the building – owned by a conservative, Catholic, bourgeois family and designed by a Nazi collaborator – embodies the contradictions of avant-garde aesthetics. During the 2015 ICA symposium, McKenzie claimed that, in her renovation of the house, she ‘neither want[s] to subvert nor emulate the taste of the time’. It’s a telling statement, especially in relation to her attempts to make visible the contradictory politics of artists and artistic movements.

On 15 June, I met McKenzie via Zoom for a virtual studio visit. She showed me those newly finished works, which return her to her parents’ collection. We discussed the ways in which cities have played a role in her work and thinking as well as her retrospective at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst, opening this month. During our conversation, I recalled the three years that I had lived in Brussels: one summer, I sublet an apartment in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, which previously had been McKenzie’s studio, onto the walls of which she had even painted what appeared to be a study for a work. So, I personally can’t entirely dislodge my experience of her work from that city. The effect it has on me is not dissimilar from walking through the side streets of Brussels, encountering buildings from different eras – from postmodern apartment blocks to medieval cathedrals – as if they were the tectonic plates of cultural history, tensely pressing against each other. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 213 with the headline ‘Lucy McKenzie’.

Main Image: Lucy McKenzie, Interior, 2007, installation detail featuring Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s design for The Dug-Out, Willow Tea Rooms, Glasgow, 1917, acrylic and ink on canvas on wooden constructions, 3 × 6  m. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York, and Cabinet, London

Aaron Peck is the author of The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (2008) and Jeff Wall: North & West (2016). His writing has appeared in The New York Review of BooksArtforum andThe White Review, among others.