BY Quinn Latimer in Reviews | 28 JUL 11
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Issue 2

Town-Gown Conflict

Kunsthalle Zürich

BY Quinn Latimer in Reviews | 28 JUL 11

‘Town-Gown Conflict’, 2011, Installation view

The British medieval idiom town and gown refers to the dialectic set-up, then and now, in university towns, where gowned scholars go about their academic life while townies follow their less scholastic pursuits. Lucy McKenzie invited a cohort of artists and designers Verena Dengler, Lucile Desamory, Caitlin Keogh, pelican avenue, Beca Lipscombe, Elizabeth Radcliffe to riff off that dialectic playfully while suggesting another: between fashion, handicraft or womens work (yes, gown) and patriarchal society at large (town). Unfortu­nately, this inspired ideas sly intelligence did not extend to the spare and lacklustre exhibition, which appeared to suffer from a lack of focus and actual work, handmade or not.

[E]verything made by mans hands has a form, which must be either beautiful or ugly; beautiful if it is in accord with Nature, and helps her; ugly if it is discordant with Nature, and thwarts her; it cannot be indifferent. I quote this William Morris injunction from 1877 not only because he was one of the chief forces of British Arts and Crafts, which this exhibition repeatedly summoned, but also because it underlines the long-gendered history that McKenzie and Co. were working out of (Nature: female, maker: male) and suggests why this show faltered. The myriad forms of the works video, textile, drawing, painting, sculpture seemed indifferent rather than inevitable, as the best art and design should be.

Elizabeth Radcliffe, Niebes, Bonnie and Teddy, 2011

For one, an exhibition about design would seem naturally to take into account the architecture of the exhibition space. Last January, the Kunsthalle was relocated to the 17th-century building Museum Bärengasse, whose small, tight rooms are tricked out with early-baroque Swiss flourishes. But the works appeared mostly detached from this settings grand weirdness. Instead the focus was on nostalgic 1970s-era-like female figuration, with women dancing naked through forests, as in Desamorys curious collage LImpaire (The odd-numbered, 2010); modelling scarves, as in Keoghs wonderful pencil drawings; or showcasing odd if familiar fashions in photographs and videos from pelican avenue. Even the more abstract pieces conjured the spectral female form, like Lipscombes series of ready-to-wear-on-the-moor capes draped over cellos (invoking shades of Man Ray and Charlotte Moorman).

Keoghs drawings conjure Don Bachardys portraits of his and Christopher Isherwoods Los Angeles artistic crowd half a century ago, and, indeed, the depiction and dressing of ones community was key here: from one of Radcliffes trompe-lil tapestry works, Lucy McKenzie wearing Beca Lipscombe by Elizabeth Radcliffe (2008), to Lipscombes cashmere pullovers Bobby and Cleo (both 2011), named after friends. Yet what this conjuring of community meant beyond the usual essentialist feminist tropes and handicraft politics escaped me. The clothes failed to beguile as fashion or as art. As I wandered the museum, noting works I liked and didnt, but without any sense of an overall design or thesis being written, I thought of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, whose myriad approaches to textiles seemed a touchstone that could not be reached, and Rosemarie Trockel, whose brilliant oeuvre mines similar ideas or materials but sans the weird, muddy longing that clouded the point of view here. Such weary wistfulness was odd, seeing that McKenzie, the shows instigator, is known for paintings that sample past (and vastly potent) visual iconography while ably emptying it of its heady nostalgia. That was not the case here; what the case was, though, remained oblique.

Quinn Latimer is a writer. Her most recent book is Like a Woman: Essays, Readings, Poems (Sternberg Press, 2017).