BY Jan Verwoert in Profiles | 10 OCT 03
Featured in
Issue 78

The state we're in

Lucy McKenzie

BY Jan Verwoert in Profiles | 10 OCT 03

What is the most potent symbol of progress? A mass political movement? A creative genius? A piece of futuristic technology, perhaps, or the finely tuned, dynamic body of an athlete?

In her paintings, murals and installations Lucy McKenzie uses images of progress taken from sources ranging from Socialist Realism and Suprematism to Prog-Rock memorabilia. She does not make fun of the hopes symbolized by and invested in the material she draws on. Her art has none of the chic irony popular with connoisseurs of modernity's ill-fated aspirations. Instead, she presents her own reworkings of specific historical iconographies with urgency and complete directness. There is often a tension, however, between this immediacy and the apparent historicity of the aesthetic idiom she has chosen. In her paintings McKenzie reinforces this friction through her use of strong motifs executed in a deliberately flat style. She avoids a slick finish or dynamic brushwork and instead goes for frozen contours and colours made to look dry, even drab, unvarnished and faded. So, if the painting seems new, it still has the patina of something kept for too long in an old cupboard or faded from long exposure on the façade of a government building in a country that has recently changed its name.

Global Joy I (2001) is a prime example. It's a large-format painting loosely based on Walter Womacka's Our Life (1962-3), a 125 metre-long mosaic frieze on the former Ministry of Education building on Berlin's Alexanderplatz, which glorifies the working lives of ordinary people. Womacka was an exponent of Socialist Realism in the German Democratic Republic and produced official state art as well as more demotic images (poster versions of which are still available on the Internet). In adapting his socialist vernacular in Global Joy I McKenzie recreates the gut feeling this style evokes. The anxious poses and stern expressions on the faces instantly touch a nerve. You feel that these people have a cause, that they are on the move, working for a better future. Yet on closer inspection it turns out that the figures depicted are hardly representatives of an identifiable social class or collective workforce: there is a girl with a gun, a guy busy putting up a poster, a group posing, another group conspiratorially assembled around a record player and a girl waving a banner. Each of the characters expresses through their dress and hair-style a provocatively nonconformist attitude and an affiliation with some Pop subculture. The result is an amalgamation of an individualist symbolism with the rhetoric of collectivism, a group of apparent rebels without a cause portrayed as though they were part of a social movement. The question the painting asks the viewer is: if these were our heroes, what could they represent?

Global Joy I was first exhibited together with Keith and Kerry (both 2001). In the latter paintings McKenzie depicted artist and friend Keith Farquhar and her own sister in poses taken from a portrait of Napoleon as a young man: Kerry sits in a classroom hunched up in an anguished pose, while her ghostly, enlarged shadow falls on a map of Europe. Similarly Keith, who is depicted in profile with a resolute look, casts a monstrous shadow over England on a map of Britain. Both images reference the Romantic cult of the genius, destined by his or her unique gifts to change the course of history. If you view these pictures alongside Global Joy I, however, it becomes clear that the apotheosis of the individual is the flipside of the glorification of the collective. The two projections are expressions of the same desire for icons of progress. It seems that McKenzie is exposing the driving force behind both the Marxist and the Romantic expressions of the modern imagination. You might call it the Hegelian disease: the desire to see the historical forces of change embodied.

Anyone who has spent time working in the culture industry knows that this cliché has existential consequences, determining people's careers. It has become crucial for creative professionals to adopt the role of the 'young hopeful' and advertise themselves as the next big thing. Untitled (2002) could be read as a comment on such social expectations. A female figure stands on a ladder, dressed in overalls, painting the word 'brain' on a wall in letters that resemble the Braun logo. In the guise of a socialist agitator producing a mural, she appears to be mocking the way in which 'smart art' has become a career opportunity and a product brand of its own. This mockery, however, does not get mired in bitter cynicism. Instead, together with Keith and Kerry the painting initiates a discourse about images that portray individuals as 'promising'. The works point towards a more general analysis of the current cultural climate, in which the hysterical search for genius is the catalyst for talent shows and for blockbuster films such as Harry Potter, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, or Terminator. The plot is always the same - the fate of the chosen one forced to live with the burden of embodying others' aspirations.

But what happens to a prodigy after they have fulfilled their youthful potential? One version of the fate modern culture holds in store for those who reached the zenith of their genius early in life is to 'go classic'. The installation Brian Eno at the Kunstverein Aachen (2003) can be understood as playing with this trope. McKenzie converted the main exhibition space into a faux Classical interior by decorating the walls with trompe l'œil stucco and pillars. Here she presented a series of graphic prints advertising events she had organized, which in this setting looked like modern masters. In a second space, illuminated by brown neon lights, McKenzie showed pencil portraits of Brian Eno and her own friends, all executed with academic prowess. A magazine was displayed as reference material - it featured a story about an apartment Brian Ferry had recently had refurbished in the Victorian style. Eno's name instantly conjures up an image of a progressive musician with an uncompromising desire for radical experimentation. At the same time the overall mise-en-scène invoked the horror scenario of an ageing avant-gardist revelling in aestheticist opulence to disguise his creative impotence. By striking a delicate balance between homage and grotesque McKenzie left open the question of whether she was exposing a cruel, self-fulfilling prophecy of a cultural stereotype or anticipating the joy of one day 'going classic'.

This exploration of the semiology of individualism should be seen within the context of McKenzie's investigation into the rhetoric of collectivism. As with the shorthand socialism of Womacka, McKenzie probes various vernacular aesthetics, as if to test whether a lingua franca is still possible. Money, for instance, is a language everyone understands. So in Aesthetic Integration Scotland and Aesthetic Integration Poland (both 2001) she inserted a Scottish pound note and a Polish 5000 zloty bill into linocuts of Modernist high-rises as if they were murals on their façade, elevating the banknotes to the status of universal icons. At the same time, however, their rich ornamental designs are exposed as locally specific. The collages show what the notes represent, but they also make you look at them as if you had never seen them before. A similar twist occurs when McKenzie adapts the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. In the installation Heavy Duty (2001) at Inverleith House, Edinburgh, for example, she designed a latticework wall in which Art Nouveau ornaments are interwoven with dollar and pound signs; and in Ost Rock Test The West (2000) she wrote the painting's title in Mackintosh letters across the surface of a Colour Field painting. The decorative style is one of the most easily recognized, and commodified, signifiers of modern Scotland, but by re-presenting it in such an unlikely context McKenzie subjects it to renewed inspection. If this is a shared currency, the works seem to ask, what common ground could it represent?

This concern with testing codes of collective representation extends to collaborative projects. In 2001, for instance, McKenzie teamed up with Paulina Olowska to paint the mural Plastyczna Integracja (Aesthetic Integration) in the Gdansk shipyard in Poland. And among a series of shows she has curated was the 'The Best Book About Pessimism I Ever Read', at the Kunstverein Brauschweig (2002), which brought artists of her own generation - Bonnie Camplin, Enrico David, Keith Farquhar, Paulina Olowska, Mathilde Rosier, Lucy Skaer, Joanne Tatham and Tom O'Sullivan - together with older Scottish artists John Byrne, Alisdair Gray and Ronnie Heeps in an attempt to define an aesthetics that McKenzie named (with reference to Gray) 'Socialist Surrealism'.

By analogy, one might describe two earlier projects as explorations of the 'Soviet Sublime'. For Top of the Will (1998-9) McKenzie compiled images of the Soviet women's team at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, reproducing their outfits and photographing herself and her friends wearing them. Decemberism (2000) was an installation of paintings that elaborated on motifs from the 1980 and 1984 games in LA. McKenzie translated the celebratory imagery into visual idioms ranging from Art Deco and Suprematism to proto-fascist and postershop design. By visualizing both Olympics in similar pathos-laden idioms she hinted at the desire of the American hosts to outdo their Russian predecessors in staging even more exaggeratedly grandiose events. Also among the works was Party for the Masses (2000), an advert for a Depeche Mode concert stencilled over a 'found' Abstract Expressionist painting. This piece was a reminder of the obsession with Soviet chic that dominated the whole gamut of 1980s Pop culture, from Elton John's schmaltzy chart hit 'Nikita' to Cassandra Complex's dark electro stomper 'Moscow Idaho' (both 1985), not to mention the cover of Depeche Mode's 1983 album Construction Time Again: a muscular figure in industrial working gear wielding his sledge-hammer in front of an alpine panorama. What is at stake in these Western projections of the 'Soviet Sublime', McKenzie suggests, is an erotic fascination with the seemingly dis-individualized socialist body and a political envy of its apparent power.

The diverse groups of work McKenzie produces feel like proposals in which she stretches the symbolism historically associated with progress and empowerment to a point where the question of the validity of those concepts is raised afresh, for both artist and viewer. Do you want progress and power like this or like that? Do you want them for yourself as an individual, or collectively? Do you want them unconditionally? By reassessing the vocabulary of these images McKenzie represents modernity as an unfinished project. Responding to her work means entering a timeframe in which icons from the recent past appear as harbingers of a yet-to-be achieved future.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.