Given the current resurgence of interest in television, the invitation card to Lucy McKenzie’s exhibition at Galerie Buchholz – with its still from the TV series The Walking Dead (2010-ongoing) – wouldn’t be so remarkable, if it didn’t also evoke the abject and the diseased, while contrasting with McKenzie’s usual preference for the décor of Art Nouveau. In light of the exhibition’s title, Inspired by an Atlas of Leprosy, one can safely assume that something is amiss in McKenzie’s world, a world that has until now always been staged with confident style. After all, this decay of still-living fingers and nose (a Biblical trope in itself), represents the source of all terrifying infections.
Inspired by an Atlas of Leprosy simulated an apartment and, like McKenzie’s other recent shows, consisted of illusionistic paintings-turned-interiors emphasizing the craft-related aspects of image production. Whereas in past years her works have concentrated on architectures and facades, this exhibition was dominated by interiors that conquered the space as sculpture. Mock-ups of desks, chairs, beds, card-index cabinets, wardrobes and a dressing table, as well as maps and notice boards, make up the furnishings, their painted wood and marble surfaces bearing trompe-l’oeil coffee cups, writing implements and cosmetics (all works 2015, originally developed for an unrealized exhibition at BOZAR, Brussels).
The show was full of reality-shifts that were announced in the titles of the works. The mattress of the Serrancolin Bed in the bedroom, executed as oil on canvas stretched on MDF, has a marble surface. The desks and 10 noticeboards, on the other hand, are all titled Quodlibet. Since the late 17th century, the quodlibet has been a sub-genre within trompe-l’oeil painting, depicting assemblages of written documents and writing implements thrown together at random. Unlike composed still lifes, quodlibets thrive on the chance quality of the arrangement, staging found fragments of reality. With the term quodlibet, McKenzie defines obviously sculptural works via their titles as paintings. Magazines, coffee cups, mobile phones, business letters or brochures: everything stands, lies or hangs on the surfaces, suggesting a real inhabitant.
The frames of the bed, the chairs, the dressing table and the desk are made of copper tubes whose curves recall the stream-lined modernism of Raymond Loewy, though their materiality also gives them a distinctive look of physical warmth. Unlike real marble, McKenzie’s painted serrancolin surfaces not only appear soft as a mattress, but in some cases also recall the kind of tissue section found in atlases of leprosy. This ‘organic’ look was reinforced by the copper tubes and their echoing of blood vessels.
Replete with allusions to the undead, leprosy and historical painting genres, with a wealth of peculiar shifts like a ‘marble mattress’, and heightened by the fact that the pictures are presented not on canvases but on sculptures, the viewer’s curiosity was more kindled than calmed. This sensation was due not least to the feeling of entering not a white cube but an abandoned apartment complete with bedroom.
At the same time, the physical dimension of the exhibition qualifies her interiors as a housing for zombies. Today, the undead stagger not only through TV series and movies, but also hang on gallery walls in the form of zombie formalism. But with its seemingly arbitrary artistic references, its web-enhanced savvy about recent art history, and its rapid rate of production, zombie formalism is in many ways the opposite of McKenzie’s painstakingly produced and crafted-looking worlds, which situate themselves within the historical context of both Art Nouveau and Flemish still life painting. Individual elements in her work appear overdetermined like dream symbols: marble is never legible as just marble, but also not as a mattress or dermatological tissue section. The copper frames of the furniture suggest not only arteries but also the handrails on an ocean liner.
The philosopher Robert Pfaller describes trompe-l’oeil as a praxis of interpassivity, as ‘delegated enjoying’ in which actions and feelings are transferred to external objects or persons. However interesting the associative echoes in McKenzie’s installation might appear to the viewer, the artist herself makes a major renunciation by rejecting composition, figuration, inspiration and ultimately her own artistic freedom. But her self-limitation to the life-like reproduction of surfaces has a quality of enjoyment, in the sense meant by Pfaller, that verges on fetishism. The artist stages this as an integral part of a style of living and working in which as much attention is devoted to her painting smock as to her study of wooden and marble surfaces. Increasingly, McKenzie is developing a tendency toward total artworks, and last year she went so far as to purchase a villa in Ostend designed by Adolf Loos, where she plans to create what she has referred to as a ‘dream space’. Inspired by an Atlas of Leprosy appears as a preliminary study for such a space – a space not just of entrance but immersion.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell