Lucy McKenzie

Lucy McKenzie – Something They Have To Live With
The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
April 6 – September 22, 2013

The Stedelijk Museum – much like its acclaimed neighbour the Rijks Museum – reopened last September after eight years of renovation and construction. The Museum has a mix of galleries devoted to design and art with McKenzie’s exhibition situated at the top of a formal staircase where, the press release explains, “all routes in the museum culminate”.

McKenzie may be familiar to some from her Inventors of Tradition project and publication with Beca Lipscombe that considered the legacy of Scottish textile manufacturing. Her diversity of practice was clearly a draw for Stedelijk Museum curator Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen who describes her portfolio as one in “which painting, craft, fashion, and architecture intertwine in a dynamic relationship”. True as this may be, the exhibition here is largely conceptual in its agenda.

Three walls hung with giant paintings based on mosaic patterns from the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, complete with a faux band of painted plain wall above the pattern work dominate one of end the exhibition space. To the other sits a mocked up distillation of Adolf Loos’ ionic Villa Müller painted with trompe l’œil marbled walls. Despite the wall text’s claim to startling realism, McKenzie’s marble seems instead to proudly scream simulacra.

Between these two focal points is a pair of unadorned coated steel mannequins, each dressed with a small necklace. Their flat proportions are about as disembodied as possible for a freestanding figure. Models of interior spaces fashioned from black portfolios with tie strings and quick pencil drawings are also included – displayed at a height that requires you to peer over the portfolio walls, like a peeping Tom looking over a garden wall, to see the interior. Finally, a table strewn with a Kindle and sketchbook pages under glass plays with further trompe l’œil, giving the museum guard quite a job during my visit to stop viewers innocently leaning on the “art work” to see the artwork.

Throughout this exhibition there is a conspicuous physical flatness that begins to feel disconcerting. My body, wandering between the patterns of Alhambra and around the flat mannequins, began to feel thick. Then I stumbled upon a nondescript painted version of an email by the artist explaining to a curator that she explicitly is not providing permission for pornographic imagery of herself, available in the public domain, to be included in an exhibition. My lumbering body – the artist’s absent body – and the curious flatness of all the spaces in between seem to snap into focus with this teasing message.

The curatorial text explains that McKenzie, “explores how architecture can insidiously influence power relations and sexuality. In both Loos’s Modernist design and the Arabic architecture of the Alhambra, women can lead a confined, sheltered existence, and the female body is both hidden from the world and displayed to a select few.” For viewers less than up to speed with their architectural history, this text is a necessary prompt – I’m not sure I would have got there alone.

Nonetheless, armed with this information I began to revisit the curious components differently. Trompe l’œil has appeared regularly in McKenzie recent work. Here I can’t let go of the fact that no surface is real – from the beautiful Alhambra mosaics to the obviously kitsch marbling of Loos’ walls. And no surface of fashion is particularly real either. (Ironically, all of the un-realness is in contrast to the very real pop-up shop housed at Magazijn (May 15-18) carrying Atelier E.B.’s latest collection of clothing and accessories made in collaboration with local textile industries.)

This exhibition makes for tough viewing. My people watching revealed that occupying the space where “all routes culminate” can also result in your exhibition being something of a roundabout; more people entered the space on their way to another room than lingered to look. This, the late Friday afternoon timing, and the slow burn nature of the content did not make for the type of work that would quickly pull people off their planned course to dwell in the space.

The big white elephant in the spacious room is alluded to in the show’s title. The illusive “they” seems to point a figure at the power players of visual culture’s past, as well as the arts establishment of today, and perhaps somewhere mixed in the artist as well? It takes some hunting to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Thought provoking stuff, although even now I’m not sure I have assembled all the parts. and

Selvedge Magazine (issue 54, 2013, pp. 91)