Lucy McKenzie

Photography Mauricio Guillén

By Esra Padgett

Lucy McKenzie’s art is calculated through the logic of dreams. Familiar signs crop up in unfamiliar locations as the uncanny becomes commonplace: family photos appearing in painterly reproductions, a Communist hero’s head sitting atop a retail mannequin, and public art reframed as domestic craft. The boundaries of the everyday are dissolved, becoming instead objects of play—a play needed now more than ever, in the long sundown of a global pandemic.

Like the rest of us, McKenzie, who is based in Belgium, spent most of the past year indoors. The experience is reflected in her latest show with Galerie Buchholz. Titled "No Motive," it’s her seventh solo exhibition with the gallery.

Many of her signature themes appear: namely, tromp l’oeil compositions, incorporation of fashion elements (separately, she runs her own fashion label), and historical references—especially to the Soviet and Classical eras. But this presentation also documents the singular moment of history in which we are currently living. As she puts it, "[it] has a slightly hermetic feel.”

When first entering the show, the viewer encounters Ethnic Composition (Moldova, Russian Ethnographic Museum) (2020), [pictured], an oil-on-canvas map of Moldova. Reproduced from a piece at the Russian Ethnographic Museum, the painting is adorned with digital prints of retail fashion mannequins. The mannequins appear again as painted sculptures that lead the vistor through the show as they pose, sitting and leaning, against the gallery’s walls in 1920s couture. Notably, the garments are reproductions of dresses by Madeleine Vionnet, the iconic French fashion designer.

In a second room, a trio of low-relief abstract wall sculptures are reproduced to scale as trompe l’oeil oil paintings. Attending each of the three works are tabletop "quodlibets"—that is, trompe l’oeil compositions depicting family photos of each corresponding artwork, housed in a domestic space. In the final room, the same mannequins are transposed into portrait form. Like the closed circuit of the trompe l’oeil paintings, the recurrence of mannequins from multiple vantage points creates a sense of vertigo. The sensation is somehow both a reproduction of, and reprieve from, the current state of things.

ESRA PADGETT: So, how was the process of making this show different from previous ones? Namely, working during quarantine, et cetera?

LUCY MCKENZIE: If you’re used to having things be stable to a certain extent, then what is in your studio can have a kind of turmoil. But of course when everything else is totally unstable than it doesn’t feel the same. I spent most of the lockdown not working but [rather] making clothes, learning to make lace, archiving and D.I.Y.—all of those things you do to stay sane. By good coincidence the things I wanted to work on [for this show] were already very inward-looking, like the mannequin portraits, which were still lifes set up in the studio. You’re kind of taught as an artist to avoid looking inward—art should be about art, or it should be about politics—so the challenge to do something that is true to that self-examination and connected to the outside world seemed important.

PADGETT: And how do you see that manifest in the work?

MCKENZIE: The abstract pieces, these were artworks that my parents bought from art students or were given, because my dad was an art teacher, and I just grew up around these weird things. My parents would hang Christmas cards on them. The rest of my house wasn’t super modern. I know that effected the way I think about art, especially the difference between art being presented in a white cube gallery with everything to do with quality and prestige and the seriousness that that implies—and then, how it looks when it’s in someone’s house and its covered in cat hair. So, it was a way about the outside world but in this domestic space.

PADGETT: Yeah, and other works in the show—the mannequins and the “map” piece—orient the work outward. They are a reminiscent of retail, or commercial space. But, from the perspective of quarantine and lockdowns, there is still this domestic thread.

MCKENZIE: Or, even the idea of the domestic space being a kind of retail space now, with Instagram and everything. All of those borders are totally dissolved. I’m interested in processing these shifts in culture that involve blurring those lines, but I just love to ground it in these arcane techniques of trompe l’oeil or hand-sewing.

PADGETT: You talk about a woman, the Soviet martyr Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, as the basis for the mannequins’ heads in the show. She seems to have been represented very differently in public monuments—from hyper-sexualized, to a kind of de-sexed, masculinized corporeality. How do these different representations translate into your mannequins?

MCKENZIE: The fact that they’re fashion mannequins—and all of the baggage of how they’ve been used by artists since surrealism to represent the passive woman, or as stand-ins for not only hyper-capitalism but a commodified female allure—they come to reflect the time that they are made in, the beauty standards of that era. So, I try to tap into that whale of associations. But, of course, they mean something different to me. In my fashion label, we chose not to use [mannequins] at all. Since we are so careful there, when I get to do my own practice, I can be as weird and subjective as I want.

PADGETT: What is different about what they mean to you, versus other artists’ representations?

MCKENZIE: I want to tap into my sexuality, too, but filtered in a certain way. I always want to layer things. To come to a conclusion or meaning, it’s never going to be one thing. I’m never going to want to depict what I consider the most attractive, idealized body or look. But, instead, this funny creature of a tough, androgynous head and thick neck with a piercing gaze on this curvy body in a relaxed pose—it is exactly this kind of friction that expresses sexuality more than anything more direct.

PADGETT: The mannequins in your show also reference Classical art and sculpture. Is that kind of a counter-point to the narrative of the mannequin as solely an index of capitalism and commodification?

MCKENZIE: Well, mannequins are such a rich world. The connections to statues you cannot ignore. When you start thinking about mannequins, you want to find the same character, and of course they don’t really exist. So, you look at statues, and then you start to work out, “Okay, that couldn’t be a mannequin because of this reason or this reason.” And you realize they have all these specific requirements: the materials and poses. But that connection to statues is always there. And with 3-D printing, I’ve seen a few examples of fashion labels making scans of their favorite models, or artists like Vanessa Beecroft or Damien Hirst scan these beautiful women. And, I think, personally that it can never compare to what an artist does.

PADGETT: Your work often incorporates this kind of "layering," as you say, of techniques, mediums, and references in a way that is not just straightforward “painting.” How did you arrive at this process?

MCKENZIE: Images are so incendiary. I want to do things more like a writer, who can write and describe a scene and it doesn’t have that same power to be shocking or abusive or really get under the skin. I always want to take the topic and filter it through a set of mirrors, so when it reaches the viewer it’s not this visceral experience. It is still talking about it but in a way that is not exploiting the visual.

PADGETT: It seems like one of the ways that works is in how transparent you are in showing the references you’ve used for your works and being explicit in your framing. But, at the same time, not everything is included or explained, which starts to make it feel more like clues in a mystery, or a conspiracy where you are trying to connect all the dots.

MCKENZIE: I know in my own relationship to culture. The blur between consumption and production is often very unclear—and I know that I love to get those clues. I think that’s often how you get interested in art. Growing up in Britain in 1980s, we had bands called Cabaret Voltaire. And you think, "What’s that?" And then you find out it’s an old club in Switzerland. So, you get these breadcrumbs to the avant-garde. The way one thing leads to another, that is what I like, so that is what I want to do for others.

Published: March 11, 2021

"No Motive" is on view at Galerie Buchholz, 17 East 82nd Street, through April 24, 2021.