Alexander Kennedy examines the temporal loops, stylistic games and political consequences of the work of Lucy McKenzie.
The recent programme of exhibitions at the Talbot Rice has dished up some of the strongest and most memorable shows in Edinburgh of late. Pat Fisher, the curator, has managed to create an environment that most artists thrive in. Now, Fisher has invited the Glasgow-born artist Lucy McKenzie back to the gallery after her successful installation in the Round Room last year, a smaller space off the main exhibition rooms. The Round Room isn’t necessarily a project space or a testing ground before the main gallery is offered, but McKenzie’s small installation (made together with Lucile Desamory and Brigit Megerle) presented a hint at the ideas that she has been exploring over the last few years, ideas that will be on show this autumn in a mini-retrospective: Ten Years of Robotic Mayhem (and sublet).
But how to approach the work of an artist whose thinking refuses to be reduced to easy one-liners? Certainly there is utopia and melancholia in abundance in the canvases of Lucy McKenzie, passing through romance and its stark opposite. Her paintings examine the use of style, ideologies trapped in paint, drawing on the weight of Europe’s recent political past, and the artistic avant-garde’s attempts to both record and comment on it. In this sense, the works are born out of an awareness of failure, emerging from the debris of rhetoric, where the specifics of arguments are forgotten but their formal stylistics remain as empty logos and typefaces. It isn’t easy to see what McKenzie is driving at: accused of smacking of ‘free love and socialism’ by one critic, McKenzie’s work is more likely an examination of how her personal desires overlap and inform her interpretation of radical poses. Desire, politics and personal identifications become conflated, and a sexed-up politics is the result. Eastern Bloc realities somehow become translated into guilty fantasies; the climate of all pervasive paranoia and suppression by the state becomes a sexualised sublimation, eaten like air by the artist.
The new paintings on show are a departure from her earlier ‘secondary modernism’ canvases, which drew on high European Modernism. This is a theme that can now be found in much of the work coming out of studios in Glasgow, but McKenzie was at the forefront of this trend, dragging an air of Glaswegian melancholy into the mix. If melancholia is a refusal to mourn that which one has lost, then these canvases dripped with this refusal. In a country chock full of the multicoloured gloop of the Scottish Colourists when everyone else in Europe was opting for clean simplicity, these canvases acted like belated attempts to tackle the situation, mixing the avant-garde styles of the early 20th century with more contemporary concerns. The canvases were not intended to act as a cure; not a remedy for Scotland’s missing high Modernism. Rather, a demonstration that linear history and meaning have a tendency to bleed into something entirely different in the present. Or, more bluntly, style is always empty.
At her recent exhibition at Metro Pictures, New York, McKenzie exhibited large canvases influenced by Hergé’s Tintin comics. In some of the works on paper Tintin’s cartoon body is ‘naturalised’, with his flat pink skin tones softened and given a more recognisable Caucasian hue. Elsewhere, characters form the artist’s life are translated into Hergé-like caricatures. Again, styles and histories are re-appropriated and made to temporarily and awkwardly sit in the present. This demonstrates not only that art history is ‘made’, but that subjectivity and personal history are also myths that we generate after the fact.
Talbot Rice Gallery, The University of Edinburgh, 20 Nov until 9 Dec.