Words cannot really describe the epic scale and breadth of this exhibition. There is so much to see and think about. It’s a challenging and wonderful exhibition by a woman artist, Lucy McKenzie, Glasgow born, Brussels – based.
A formidably skilful painter, McKenzie has revived the old tradition of trompe l’oeil – AL
I’ve just arrived at this exhibition at Tate Liverpool. “The exhibition brings together 80 works dating from 1997 to the present, highlighting themes that have interested McKenzie throughout her career such as the iconography of international sport, the representation of women, gender, politics, music, subcultures and post-war muralist.”
“A formidably skilful painter, McKenzie has revived the old tradition of trompe l’oeil. The artist has an extraordinary approach and vast vision of life. It’s an exhibition that goes beyond any expectations, but we have to begin somewhere and any person walking in off the street may do as many of us did today, which is to start at the beginning and see what happens. It’s an adventure with layers of mystery and fascination!
It’s fascinating to comprehend the assumptions one has when they hear the term Trompe-l’œil. It conjures up a sense of tradition and normality, something kitsch, a technique that is comfortable that anyone can have in their homes to add a sense of decor and glamour that they may not otherwise have in reality. It has high and low art form connotations. It can be simple or over the top and ornate. But as you explore this exhibition, you will discover there is more to it than meets the eye! The trompe l’oeil you think is trompe l’oeil is sometimes collage and there are pieces that are painted that you think are glued on. She constantly plays with our perceptions and expectations. So many things fascinate her. Hardly anything is left out, even the administrative formal letters one receives in their life become part of the overall journey of her work.
As you walk in the gallery, the room is light and airy. The first art object I see is a giant architectural form which intrigues me as I glance at the walls to start my tour of the exhibition. I decide to come back to this monument later.
The first artwork displayed is called Coin de Diable, Backdrop 2011 oil paint on canvas. I like the way the artist has combined a sketch of a man and woman overlapped on the trompe l’oeil painting of a panelled wall. I have to confess I had to look closely to see whether the framed drawing was actually hanging on the wall or not. Yes, you’ve guessed it, that was trompe l’oeil also! A painting technique that tricks the eye into thinking the object is real. But there seems to be more going on here.
As we walk on, we come to another painting on canvas called ‘side entrance, oil paint and graphite on canvas. 2011’. This painting certainly has the effect of the Glasgow School and the works of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, almost art nouveau and architectural at the same time, decorative and something different. But what is it that’s different?
Walk further on around that large architectural ‘monument’ which you now discover is titled ‘Loos House, 2013′, the one you saw on first entering the exhibition space and you discover it was based upon the floor plan of Villa Muller a house in Prague designed in 1930 by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos. “Here McKenzie has recreated Loos,’ signature Cipollono marble. by cladding cubed structures in trompe l’oeil. Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but I have never heard of Adolf Loos. That’s another one for the artist enquiry list! There is quite a lot going on here with McKenzie’s cladding inviting us to consider “monumental, closed structures as spaces where the world within is explicitly separated from the world beyond the walls. She explores how architecture can insidiously influence power relations and sexuality.”
Walk further on and see Mackenzie’s drawings of fashion and cats, something a little quaint and Beatrix Potterish. Unusual, What’s going on here? Such a contrast in styles of art. I also enjoyed her fashion designs of work coats 2010. There is an excellent variety of styles and themes just in this one room alone: Paintings, trompe l’oeil, fashion and now a photorealist portrait of a girl. I enjoyed using mixed media as in this artwork ‘Untitled B curious 2004 acrylic paint and oil paint on wallpaper on canvas. Lucy tells us that she used wallpaper as a substitute before her process of trompe l’oeil and she wanted to paint a girl who was keen to be photographed. Her portraits are well painted with attention to detail, almost photorealist, but they change in style at certain points. Sometimes they are quite Pop and at other times, they are quite a propaganda and have a political slant.
Propaganda is something that Lucy plays with and makes references to in her work, the challenges of reinventing stereotypes and looking deeper into things, observing alternate ways of seeing things have become accepted and those things that have become taboo. I notice there is this high art low art concept going on with the use of oil paint and household items such as wallpaper and recycled art versus this more high art approach of classical architecture such as columns and grandeur mixed in with decay and very ordinary things that many of us take for granted like radiators and faded wallpaper. She doesn’t disregard these neglected and decaying parts of a room. You start to see that she finds it is just as important.
We come to ‘door acrylic paint on canvas’ a kind of sketch of an art nouveau modern door. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, although it alluded to this idea of people sticking fake art nouveau stained glass sticky plastic to their doors and windows. I quite like the way she mixes and matches these high and low art forms while at the same time reminding us of the decor of the past, combining it with the present but also the declining present. She plays around with the idea of illusion and expectations. Sometimes there is no illusion, but we seek it anyway.
Look up to the ceiling. There is a sky cloud statue effect as if looking upwards into an open roof surrounded by statues.
Walkthrough to the next room where her work on international sport and underground music is displayed. “Her paintings of athletes and scenes from the Olympic Games are based on mass media representations of these people and events, including staged photographs of herself and her friends. “While the works aren’t explicitly political, Mckenzie focused on Games with particularly fraught ideological and political contexts.” The combination of political statements and fanzine punk culture, alongside her mixed media, found art and discarded items and typography, depicts the phasing out of an era.
I like the way Lucy has recycled discarded abstract paintings by other art students that she has then embellished with typography, names and details of Berlin club nights on the surfaces, transforming their original context. An exciting combination of techniques and mediums and a fascinating way to recycle and incorporate discarded artworks.
Continue into the next section. We reach her murals in public spaces. Here you will find some fascinating replicas of maps and murals from other buildings. This idea of copying old murals and bringing them back to life is intriguing. She had even researched a mural from the film ‘The Clockwork Orange’, stopped the video and managed to gain the detail of a mural in the film’s background, which she copied precisely and is now exhibited in this exhibition. Her public art, particularly her work for urban renewal projects in Scotland, is fascinating. And gradually, the exhibition starts to unravel. The works are becoming more experimental. This exhibition is not turning out to be what I expected it to be. Much more, however, this is an epic exhibition, not to be missed. It’s a lifetime of extensive experiences and hard work.
For instance, she set up her own fashion label, Atelier EB, creating her own clothes but using the gallery environment to break down barriers and preconceived ideas that would generally allow us to see fabric and items as ‘precious’ and unattainable, allowing instead for one to touch and buy these clothes from the gallery itself. This is done in order to challenge the modern concept of fashion and women as objects of fashion and stereotypes. Her mix of retro, ordinary everyday clothes combined within a vintage style, an almost iconic storefront situation a parody upon the modern concept of fashion display, prompts you to think about the psychology that revolves around body image and our own relationship with fashion and shopping. It is a highly innovative concept.
At other times she uses a real-life cafe in the city with uniforms for waitresses. She has designed herself and invited women inside this room where talking and discussion transforms into an actual live performance and art installation that people can come into and be part of. It was exciting listening to this art performance. She spoke about how she liked to challenge the traditional idea of how artworks were hung on a wall by using posters and flyers, recycled, discarded artworks by others that she reinterpreted and created her own political statements. She posed in some of her photographs. She staged photographic political Olympic imagery to challenge the way women were treated and discussed in sport, conveying her interest in these sanctioned events compared to her more underground nightclub art.
I was so impressed by Lucy McKenzie’s extensive and in-depth passion for art as well as her enquiring mind, researching and responding to many important themes and issues within our society such as Politics, Sport Pornography, Architecture, Fashion, Feminism, Performance, Installation, Night-club culture, Data and Information, Maps, Film, Popular Culture, the list goes on. You won’t be disappointed to find out more about this highly versatile and talented artist, a visionary and activist in many forms.
We came out of the exhibition. Myself and other people reviewing the exhibition just looked at each other in amazement at such an impressive and inspiring exhibition. “Wow! That was incredible!” we said to one another.
Lucy is fearless in her art and confronts situations head-on, seeking alternative views and approaches. Her energy was incredible. You start viewing this exhibition with a slight assumption that it will remain in the same pitch. Still, it gathers tremendous momentum and then it becomes larger than life and more enigmatic as you continue until you are just completely amazed and overwhelmed by her range of techniques and her breadth of creativity. So be prepared!
I enjoyed this exhibition. You need a good day for it with lunch in the afternoon. Don’t rush it. Take your time and explore this diverse and fascinating artist. It’s one of those exhibitions that will remain in my memory for a long time.
Words: Alice Lenkiewicz Photos: Courtesy Tate All rights reserved
Lucy McKenzie Tate Liverpool 20 October 2021 – 27 March 2022 Tate Liverpool