‘I have zero interest in being part of good taste culture’: an interview with Lucy McKenzie

Henry Andersen

In the painted works of Lucy McKenzie, the artist delves deeply into surfaces. At a formal level, her use of tromp l’oeil and other decorative painting styles suspend the surface – they give the illusion of depth and suggest perspective. At a more conceptual level, McKenzie is fascinated by the attributes of character typically denigrated as ‘surface level’ – the clothing one wears, the magazines they read, the way they decorate their apartment etc. In McKenzie’s work, these details too open onto a suggestion of hidden depth. McKenzie’s interest in these details however, has none of the irony we’ve come to expect from contemporary-art-about-applied-art. In addition to her paintings McKenzie runs a clothing label with Beca Lipscombe (Atelier E.B.) and has run a record label and a bar night (‘Nova Popularna‘ with Polish artist Paulina Olowska). Conceptual Fine Arts spoke with McKenzie in the context of her solo show ‘Inspired by an Atlas of Leprosy‘, currently in Berlin at Galerie Buchholz.

We’d like to begin by thinking about how artists relate to the city in which they live. It can be interesting to look at the kinds of responses that various ‘ex-pat’ artists have to city like Brussels; whether its somewhere they strongly identify with, or just a ‘home-base’, if its a question of visibility etc. Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship to Brussels. Is the city a conscious influence for your work?

I am asked this a lot, and no matter what I say my reply gets modified to fit a vested interest in Brussels being an art hotspot. I think contemporary art is one of the least interesting things about the city and I find Brussels one of the least annoying places I’ve ever lived. On top of that it fits my idea of what a pleasant city could be, part of that being how beautiful it is and rich in architectural extremism. In many ways my artistic path was set before I moved here in 2006, so I don’t have the same connection to the local social scene that I did back in Glasgow. The history of Belgian architecture, decoration and design has a big influence on my work because of my enjoyment of discord, idiosyncrasy and problematic politics.

You originally moved in Brussels to study at the Van Der Kelen, which is school for decorative painting here. Can you tell us a little about your experience there and why you decided on this particular course of study?

I didn’t move to Brussels to study at Van Der Kelen, I just saw a photo of it in a coffee table book about Brussels interiors in Pele Mele or somewhere. At the time I studied there I felt like my work needed a shake-up, and it seemed like such a coincidence that in the city I had just moved to was a remarkable school to study the things I wanted some professional training in. It was a mind-bending experience, especially for a lazy, spoiled contemporary artist, when you are used to being able to talk your way out of any failure. The work load was so heavy that I couldn’t do shows, travel or even maintain correspondence. So you learn that the world does not end if you take a break from socialising. You also learn that your limits and strength are much more than you thought.

We also read that your ambition as a child was not even to be an artist so much as to be an art-student. Your father was an arts teacher himself, right? And you have had students of your own at the Kunstverein Düsseldorf. What do you think is the role of arts education for artists today?

As an art student I was not very concerned with the day to day issues of my school because a lot of my artistic and social life was outside of studying. I only taught at Duesseldorf for two and a half years and I wasn’t prepared for how seriously the Duesseldorf student took the role of their teacher, or how some of the teachers identified with the Akademie as an institution. I don’t really have an opinion. If I taught again, I would like to be involved in something that was a cross between Richard Hamilton’s ‘Basic Course’ and Vkhutemas, where all subjects are subdivided, so you get lessons in things like the philosophy of shadow, or the chemistry of colour.

You currently have two shows at Galerie Buchholz. One is a solo show, called Inspired by an Atlas of Leprosy, and the other is your collaboration with Beca Lipscombe under the clothing label Atelier EB, which fills the whole lower floor of the gallery. We’ll come back to the solo show upstairs, but for the moment we’d like to ask you about Atelier E.B. What lead you the two of you to start working together? How much do you consider the label as a part of your individual practice and how much is it a separate entity?

It’s hard to explain how the collaboration functions because it works so well. I don’t put art and design in a hierarchy, and Atelier E.B is very close to my individual practice – it’s just the part that I get to do with Beca, and that can be the genesis of an idea or the final outcome, it’s never really clear. Beca is a brilliant designer, it’s an honour and pleasure to work with her. I modelled for the label she did before, then she made some outfits for the bar project ‘Nova Popularna’ in Warsaw. Around then I found out she hand-printed herself and had everything made locally. I had no idea how the fashion world operated and I learned through her. She had the kind of self-determination and self-sufficiency I aspired to. Then I ‘sublet’ part of a touring show to her and she had a shop in the exhibition space, then we started Atelier E.B, with Bernie Reid also, her partner at the time, who is an illustrator.

And what about the specific collection you are showing at Galerie Buchholz? The press release for this collection mentions a connection to the recent Scottish vote for independence. Can you elaborate on this a little? Unlike a lot of clothing labels you release collections on a totally self-determined schedule, rather than each season. What then is the beginning point for Lipscombe and yourself when you decide you want to make a new collection?

In the heightened political awareness provoked by the vote for Scottish independence in 2014, this seemed an issue that was worth exploring independently of the hierarchies and institutions that usually shape its definition. Things like the Royal Bank of Scotland’s ‘RBS’ logo on Scottish rugby shirts became an icon of hypocrisy at a time when the company was threatening to move its headquarters abroad if Scotland chose independence. Scottish style should remain uncommodifiable, yet to ignore it would be wrong, so there is Scottish heraldry in the collection, but it is pixelated, so it’s inoffensive; to us at least. We are working on a collection all the time, it just depends on when we can get it to the public because for each one we try something new that takes a lot of time to develop. This is usually in terms of how the collection is distributed, for instance for this collection it is the first time it can be bought off the peg and not ordered, so we had to invest in stock and predict how much we’d sell. For the next collection we’ll do something different; the plan is to have it all made in LA, and spend some time there.

There is something very interesting about the choice to display the Atelier EB collection alongside Inspired by an Atlas of Leprosy. One occasionally sees clothing and fashion displayed in art spaces but this tends to be in more documentary formats shows (in vitrines or displayed on walls etc.). At Galerie Buchholz however, all the clothes were for sale and the bottom floor really functioned as a working store rather than simply as a representation of one. How do you see the relationship between art and fashion generally?

Atelier E.B. are very occupied with how these things interact at the moment, and we have, for instance, a blanket ban on being in thematic group shows. For Atelier E.B I think about notions like costume, drag, the hijab, sportswear and gender, not really fashion or art. You see on Pintrest and Instagram how much art, and women artist figures are reference material for stylists. For me, it’s not so immediately visual. It’s in a broader cultural field. I’m into things like the issues around the ‘new woman’ of the 1920s. The status quo absolutely flipped out that they cut their hair short. But that style is a lot of work to maintain, and the new ‘easy’ clothes were not particularly practical, and the corset was now just internalised. But that does not mean that the emancipation was an illusion. This thinking informs my design work more than a nice picture of a flapper on my mood board. Unless it’s a photo of the Kardashians at a Gatsby themes party, I love that.

Coming back to your solo show upstairs: We’d like to start by asking you about the title?

The show was originally planned for the Bozar in Brussels but was cancelled, and that was to be called ‘Atlas of Leprosy’. Then there was so much in the media in this spring to do with intellectual property – Marvin Gaye / Pharrell Williams and the Luc Tuymans case with the young photographer which was fascinating. So I’ve been thinking a lot about ownership and how much just being ‘inspired by’ let’s you off the hook. ‘Atlas of Leprosy’ is just a phrase, it does not mean anything, I hoped it would puzzle the viewer when they saw the big maps in the show perhaps.

Also the invite card – no-one has asked. I have a collection of screengrabs from film and tv where you see a pin board in shot somewhere. I like this still from ‘The Walking Dead’ because it’s obvious it’s not even a real pin board behind Rick, it’s just a digital print stretched on a frame, because it’s just set dressing for a shot a few seconds long.

In past interview, you said “My allowance of Romanticism is placed on the images I choose to paint.” So there is a sense in which the mechanical nature of your painting technique allows you to locate the ‘artistry’ at the level of the selection of images rather than their execution, as one often thinks of being the case with photography. Is that statement still something you’d agree with?

Yes. That’s why I like decorative painting, it’s so procedural, and there are so few choices you need to make except rather important ones – what to paint and what that content means in a specific context. There are some abstract painting in the show, because the person who lives in that place would have abstract paintings on their walls. This show was thinking about décor – and what is more decorative than a nice medium sized abstract painting for the bedroom? I have no idea how to do something abstract, so I used the composition of some of the big slabs of marble in the show as the basis for the composition and did them in a couple of hours.

In a lot of your work, and particularly in your current show, there is a sense of being interested in trying to define the personality of a character based on the choices of things they buy or have lying about their house; their choice of furniture, wallpaper, the magazines they read etc. Particularly when you don’t know someone personally, markers of taste like this become important reference points for understanding their personality. With the show at Galerie Buchholz however, you protagonist is invented, so these markers of taste are the only the clues the viewer has for understanding the character. How do you decide which items you want to include to define a character in this way?

Almost everything was chosen from random sources because I am so sick of exactly these questions of taste and reference. The world of visual culture has changed so much in the last decade. If you are interested in aesthetics you have to examine your relationship to culture material much more carefully now, or you are just a coloniser. I have zero interest in being part of good taste design culture. That’s why I like to work with art nouveau, partly because it’s not the kind of thing you ever see in a boutique hotel or collectors house. But what I also find interesting about Art Nouveau is that somewhere like Brussels it wasn’t a 19th century dead end (like in Paris). In Brussels, like Vienna it ushered in modernism, but people still take it at face value and see it as kitsch – Frank Lloyd Wrong.

We were also reminded of a comment that someone made about the artist Nina Beier’s work – that she’s interested in changing fashions but less so high fashion than the kinds of changing tastes in bathroom tiles, or car head seats etc. It seems that perhaps this is an interest you both share. We are thinking here particularly about the research you were doing on fascistic bathroom interiors for a recent project. How do you see the relationship between tastes in consumer items and broader ideologies? What do you think about consumer items like furniture and wallpaper as markers of particular times or sets of ideals?

I love exploring ideology or gender codes through how houses are decorated – the misogyny in utopian modernism for instance. I’m not sure what else to say on that.

The other thing that is immediately striking about Inspired by an Atlas of Leprosy is that it is a very labour intensive show. When you begin a show like this do you plan it all out before hand and then execute it, or let it emerge piece by piece?

As I mentioned before, it was all originally planned for the Bozar, so that is why it looks a bit like a museum show, and has so much work in it. I’m very happy with the outcome and I think I’d like to do this more, spend longer time on less shows. For Inspired by an Atlas of Leprosy I had the most skilled help I’ve ever had, and the bulk of the time consuming procedural painting work is done for me by assistants. Which is great, I get to hang out all day in my studio listening to audio books and talking to lovely women as we paint tiny letters. My assistants are never asked to supply content, only their time and labour. The last thing I want is for value to be aligned with ‘hard work’ – the emphatic labour as a component in the whole show, but not the point. As for how it comes together, I’m not really sure, a mix of everything, but the planning is important of course because it’s all oil paint and you have things like varnishing to leave time for. When I finally saw everything in place I was struck by how much the show felt like the paintings had been ‘styled’ – the way a stylist adds a story to a familiar garment with accessories and location on a photoshoot. It was like the whole show was an elaborate showcase for each individual work, which in itself is rather mundane.

Finally, there was a painting you showed at the Tate several years ago, where you repainted an image of Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series on a domestic wall. So, a little like some of Louise Lawler photographs, instead of seeing how these famous images look under ‘ideal’ gallery conditions we get to see them in the way they context they spend most of their time. How do you feel about your own work in domestic spaces?

It’s a good question. Beyond the exhibition they are made for I don’t consider the final destination of a work, they are from then on for someone else to style and someone else’s story.

May 16, 2017