Lucy McKenzie

Tate Liverpool, until 13 March 2022, £10

Upon entering this Lucy McKenzie retrospective, the first thing you see is a large marbleised structure. It takes up lots of space, looks good, and I imagine is likely to cause an “ooh” reaction. I can’t blame Tate for wanting to start with something big and aesthetic, for McKenzie does this very well. At multiple points in my notes I’ve used words like “opulent”, “monumental”, “drama”. And “surface” – because the real appeal of McKenzie’s work is how all these qualities are just surface. How what she’s actually interested in is the layers which lie below the superficial first impressions, and their implications.

Installation shot from Lucy McKenzie exhibition at Tate. Looks over a marbleized wall towards two paintings,, one of which is a trompe l'oeil work showing marble panels and the other is an impression of a doorway and steps

McKenzie’s main signature style is trompe-l’œil. It’s the art of visual deception, of creating an image which is both an imitation of truth and a unique work in its own right. This exhibition shows us how she applies this concept across film, photography, the lived environment, and of course in painting. It’s in paint that we particularly get the “ooh” effect, as we admire the finesse of her false marble surfaces. There could be something a big gimmicky about so much trompe-l’œil, but a couple of things neutralise the danger.

One is the humour with which it’s executed. This in part relates to a source she is in dialogue with at several points of the exhibition, the non-ornamental philosophy of 20th century architect Adolf Loos. Not somebody I’d heard of before, but we’re told that he rejects ornamentation. An edict with which she engages in a humourous and rather defiant dialogue. Loos apparently advocated for investment in materials rather than adornment, which is why McKenzie has applied this false marble effect. While it’s expertly done, it’s also obviously fake. Trompe-l’œil is an art form which, it seems to me, is constantly in a dialogue between wanting to deceive and yet also wanting to be recognised as a fake, so that we might admire its particular artistry. There’s an undermining of Loos’ ideas beneath the apparent opulence – and on one level they deserve it: even the briefest Google search reveals the deep racism of his philosophical motivations. She also achieves a similar result with the sky-on-the-ceiling work ‘Untitled‘. It’s a beautiful work, of fine surface quality. But placed on the ceiling you’ll only spot it if you look up, and I notice during my visit that not everyone notices it. Aside from its beauty and logic, this gives its presence a note of being an embellishment – surely Loos would disapprove! Then there’s the detail of a cat peering down at us from just over the wall – a comically unnecessary ornament if there ever was one.

Loos may be abhorrent, but I see how his ideas correspond with a different movement I have a particular interest in – early-Soviet Productivism & Constructivism. These movements were interested in radically changing the aesthetic mood in favour of practicality, with results which would adhere to a political ideology. It’s surely no coincidence that the same period in which these ideas arose was when the admiration of sports culture and physical achievement was reaching never-before-seen heights: both are about aspirations to perfection and efficiency. It’s not at all a surprise to me, then, that McKenzie has also been attracted to the sporty aesthetic. And I totally get why she’s particularly attracted by the aesthetics of late-socialist gymnasts – when the Olympics was as much about projections of power as physical achievement. What I’m not so convinced about is what she does with the subject in ‘Top Of The Will‘. Putting herself and her friends into the place of the athletes is kitsch. Inserting yourself into a socialist fantasy world feels immature. Rather than working as a critique of the surface, it stumbles around a simplified idea of otherness which has characterised the discourse between West & East for too long. But this is early work, and it’s interesting to see her development of the themes later in the exhibition. The simple setup of the table, chairs and staff uniform which are a record of the ‘Nova Popularna’ bar she operated in Warsaw avoid the same kitsch by leaning into it. No such context exists for this neo-peasant fantasy as it does for the gymnasts. It knows it’s a fantasy and that this allows us to give this aesthetic our own meaning.

Installation show from Lucy McKenzie exhibition of "Top of the Will". Central large photos shows artist and her friends dressed as 1980s Soviet gymnasts with chosts of the actual gymnasts from magazines etc stuck to wall all around

It seems obvious to me that it’s all deeply political, though disappointingly (and insultingly) this is not something the show expects you to pick up on. Why else would they feel the needs to mention right at the end of the show that McKenzie’s interested in feminism – as if you could have come out of the film ‘The Girl Who Followed Marple‘ (right by the start of the exhibition) without picking up on this. And the observation that “pleasure and desire are a motivating force [for McKenzie]” will only come as a shock if you really have walked round in a stupor. Anyway: politics is constantly bubbling under the surface – telling us to be wary of what we see. This is particularly the case in her most architectural works. In the triptych ‘May of Teck’/ ‘Kensington’/ ‘Town/Gown Conflict‘ the impressions of grand marble are betrayed by stains, pencilled notes on the wall – and of course the knowledge that none of it is real in the first place. And later as we explore her work based around the Villa De Ooievaar, a real-life fascist-modernist construction McKenzie’s restoring, we’re reminded of how principles (in this case of design, but it stands as a general point) can be co-opted from utopian origins and manipulated to fit other ideologies.

As a show this is a massive, sprawling experience. This gives everything a chance to make its own point, but sometimes that only highlights when things don’t work. Compared to most of McKenzie’s work the maps don’t convince me at all. I find the Glasgow one a particular failure – looking for layers but instead implying a causation in correlation which is at best tenuous. And while I totally appreciate why McKenzie would have a clothing store – of course somebody who’s so interested in surface is interested in the layers we use to project and conceal ourselves every day – the space it’s given here feels a bit disconnected and wasted. This could be a great platform for interrogation, but they’ve chosen to focus on the aesthetic surface rather than the ideas behind them. Which runs counter to everything else this exhibition, and McKenzie’s work, has been about.

It also creates a network of individual and interconnected ideas, and putting the puzzle of these together is what’s so particularly satisfying about this exhibition. Usually how I write about a show is that I take some notes as I go round, then find somewhere to sit with a coffee and my notebook so that everything can fall into place. The ritual was as usual for this one, but not the outcome. I somehow ended up with more half-formed thoughts, more threads of ideas which didn’t quite connect.

I suppose the question to tie it all together has to be: did I like it? Yes: I like where McKenzie’s coming from – I’d love to have a cup of tea with her to discuss our shared interests. I like how she puts layers under layers, and her attitude towards this. I don’t think it always works, but that’s fine. There’s enough here to show just what an interesting artist McKenzie is, the depth with which she can interrogate her subjects and the multiple intentions behind her surfaces. Opulence is a fine first impression, but the real value in this exhibition is in what lies beneath that.

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