New York

Lucy Mackenzie, Modern Art, 2010, oil on board, 3 1/2 × 5 1/4".

Lucy Mackenzie, Modern Art, 2010, oil on board, 3 1/2 × 5 1/4".

Lucy Mackenzie

Lucy Mackenzie, Modern Art, 2010, oil on board, 3 1/2 × 5 1/4".

Not only does Lucy Mackenzie’s work fall into an age-old genre, the still life, but it is old-style in being resolutely and exactingly realistic, sometimes to the point of trompe l’oeil. These paintings and drawings are small—most of those in this show had dimensions roughly in the three-to-seven-inch range, with the unusual largest scraping up to a bit over ten—and the paintings were made not on canvas but on board, giving them a subtle solidity. Small, subtly solid, and treated with clear and precise color by an extremely careful hand: These are jewel-like little objects, instantly seductive.

Many of Mackenzie’s fascinations are the familiar ones of the classic still-life painters of seventeenth-century Holland and any number of others both earlier and later: the play of light, the use of shadow to define space, the distortions of reflection in water and glass, how to convey the shape of something transparent, the selection of objects to evoke or define a milieu. “My focus in painting,” the artist writes in a wall label in the show, “is concentrated on the way light falls on domestic objects, at a precise moment in time.” You might ask, then, What, if anything, makes these works contemporary? I doubt that contemporaneity is particularly Mackenzie’s concern, but the odd marker places her today. In Toy Truck on a Printed Cloth, 2012, for example, a diminutive red-and-green metal truck stands blockily on a perspectivally receding cloth ground of black-and-white triangle or hourglass shapes. That ground is less regular than it initially looks, the printed pattern more unpredictable, the points of the triangles sometimes joining and sometimes misaligning—only by a hair, but surely those eccentric sideways slippages are deliberate. The work can be variously read—as a fond recollection of a boy’s childhood, say—but if it is as symbolically coded as I suspect it is (and as Dutch still lifes often were), and given the aesthetically loaded history of cloth in art since the 1960s and ’70s, it may be a three-inch-high poem on masculinity and femininity composed by a quite modern woman.

Mackenzie cares about poems, posting two—by Emily Dickinson and Seamus Heaney—in gallery wall labels. The Dickinson rhymes easily with her sensibility but the Heaney, the well-known “Postscript,” is more surprising, a gorgeous account of rowdy effects of light and wind on a drive along the west coast of Ireland. Mackenzie evidently cherishes the marine light Heaney describes—she herself grew up surrounded by sea on the Isles of Scilly, off the British coast—but she contrives to bring it indoors. She cites “Postscript” in the context of Three Observer’s Books, 2014, a painting of a neat stack of England’s once popular Observer handbook series, her choices being published in the 1950s and early ’60s: from top to bottom, Weather (with a simple blue spine), Sea & Seashore (light brown), and Painting (sand). The same publishing series reappears in Four Books (2), 2009, showing the books Trees, Weather, Garden Flowers, and Wild Flowers, and in Modern Art, 2010, the book being Modern Art. Here, the still life’s potential for coding is more explicitly signposted, the books, down to their colors, standing as evocative correlatives of landscape, landscape painting, and painting itself. Whereas they usually lie directly on a shelf, the single volume in Modern Art rests on a layer of wooden blocks—surely a nod to Carl Andre, whose Equivalent VIII of 1966, a flat double layer of bricks, was subjected to a storm of controversy in the conservative England of the mid-’70s after its purchase by the Tate.

The largest category of pictures here showed tableware of different kinds—chinaware (sometimes as the receptacle for flowers), glassware, and other domestic vessels. Surely these were the most conventional of Mackenzie’s still-life subjects, yet her selection was unpredictable, suggesting a kind of history of taste, from Wedgwood (a company founded in the eighteenth century) to the tapered, slender, handleless modern cup in Striped Cup and Paper Bag, 2012, to the eccentric stacked tower in Tall Pile of China, 2010, a various array of personal choices and, perhaps, another nod to a modern genre, the stripe painting. These dialogues with the present-day, of course, may exist more in the mind of the present-day viewer than in Mackenzie’s intentions, but they are probably to some extent inevitable in both places.

David Frankel