PRINT September 2001


IT COULD BE SOME LATE, last-gasp cultural tendency, a kind of postmodern dead-cat bounce, or it might be a marketing tag designed to evoke a mood and excite demand for an offering of year-end schlock. In any case, “Decemberism” is a strange neologism, redolent of both the categorizing zeal of the theoretician and the satisfyingly hopeless longing of the romantic. The exhibition to which Lucy McKenzie affixed this title late last year toyed with both these various semantic possibilities, encouraging the viewer to juggle any number of flips and reversals. Even for those who had seen her assured contribution to the first Beck's banners, and announcements, as well as the classic turn-of-the century design of the Wiener Werkstätte and Glasgow Art Nouveau. Figuration was realist, almost photorealist at times, as in Curious, 1998, a close-up rear view of a female hurdler bent over at the starting blocks, while elsewhere it aped the Vorticism of David Bomberg. A battered, white painted wooden screen stood bunched up toward one corner of the room, partially obscuring some of the paintings and perhaps implying that we should be concerned less with detached contemplation than with finding a meaning. And at every turn the question as to whether one was dealing with froth or substance hovered nearby.

The image in McKenzie's Vorticist Force the Hand of Choice II, 2000, is taken from the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and the same pageant of men in blue tailcoats pounding away on banked-up grand pianos is used for the ambiguously titled They Are Lying on Their CVs, 2000. It is both a laughable scene and an understandable one in view of the ludicrous yet ever so serious tit-for-tat boycotts that went on at that time. The other side of the coin is visible in Sport March, 2000, a gray monochrome with the repeated words of the title pulsing down the right-hand side of the canvas (in Russian). Thin strips in the colors of the Olympic rings run around the picture's edge, tying a faint nod to Imi Knoebel into the painting's mix of Suprematist, socialist realist, and Constructivist tropes.

What interest, though, could someone who is only now in her early twenties have in the '80s electro-pop bands Depeche Mode and Erasure, and why would she concern herself with the Moscow and LA Olympics of 1980 and '84, events she can hardly have been aware of at the time? McKenzie is not trying to explore music and sport in themselves. She had the idea that each might provide her with an “empty category,” a simple model of conflict and of structures of power that she could use to interrogate her own relationship to the legacies of history. After copying the official leotards of the Soviet gymnastics team, McKenzie photographed herself and friends wearing the uniforms as if they were Natalia Shaposhnikova's teammates. Self-absorbed, the girls loll, slump, or lie around, trying out attitudes and positions. We see—among a montage of images of the real athletes taken from magazines and newspapers—the girls testing what it means to them to be who they are as they reach adulthood. Likewise, while still in her teens McKenzie had modeled in porn sessions for photographer and filmmaker Richard Kern. Thoroughly aware of the power relationships that exist between pornographer and model in such circumstances, she was able to treat this as a situation defined through a set of “cardboard cutout roles” that, once accepted, could be ignored in favor of a more equal and interested exchanged between the two players. Sport is as ideologically loaded as anything else, of course, and porn is a bit more complicated than just getting naked and having your picture taken, but the motivation here is personal rather than sociological. The aim is to find where there might be the space to maneuver, to confront things as they are given, and to examine one's own desires and predilections. Most recently, in “Heavy Duty” at Edinburgh's Inverleith House, the second of her collaborative shows with Polish artist Paulina Olowska, McKenzie has more or less literalized her acquisitive investigation into how a purposeful engagement with the world can be negotiated—by designing her own banknotes.

To make Party for the Masses, 2000, McKenzie appropriated a friend's failed abstract painting and reproduced over its blobby ground the text of a poster advertising a Depeche Mode event in Germany. Also concerned with music as a site of both cultural struggle and the articulation of individuality (in the mid-'90s McKenzie played guitar in the Scottish indie band Ganger), Ost Rock Test the West, 2000, superimposes its title on an abstract background in which a broad black swath runs diagonally across a modulated red field. McKenzie renders her text in Charles Rennie Mackintosh-style Art Nouveau lettering. The lower loops of each s are hugely exaggerated and hook around like monstrous noses sniffing the perfumed decay of the political and cultural landscape, while in the lower comers an arrangement of small squares imitates the tile patterns set into the concrete staircases of Mackintosh's Glasgow School of Art. Though educated in Dundee, McKenzie, like Mackintosh, comes from Glasgow. The references are obvious markers of personal identity, if ambivalent ones. The city is smothered in imitations of and allusions to the architect's work, and it was only after spending a period of time away from Scotland on a student exchange visit to Germany that McKenzie was able to separate out from this “mockintosh” tourist-trash imagery some thing of the contribution that Mackintosh had made to the resources of modem art and design. His strong connections with continental modernism now find themselves refigured within McKenzie's broader interest in recent German painting. The ironized politics of Albert Oehlen and the idiosyncratic inventiveness of Kai Althoff's installations and music join Steven Campbell's freewheeling expressive imagery and Cosey Fanni Tutti's side career in porn—each just one more resource to be tapped. McKenzie, whose curiosity about German culture recently led to a short stint in Berlin, points out, too, that the small dot Mackintosh placed under the letter ois as good as an upside-down umlaut.

Michael Archer is a London-based critic and writer.