Lucy McKenzie, Quodlibet XIII (Janette Murray), 2010, oil on canvas, 31 1⁄2 × 21 5⁄8".

Lucy McKenzie, Quodlibet XIII (Janette Murray), 2010, oil on canvas, 31 1⁄2 × 21 5⁄8".

Lucy McKenzie

Lucy McKenzie, Quodlibet XIII (Janette Murray), 2010, oil on canvas, 31 1⁄2 × 21 5⁄8".

Curated by Jacob Proctor

I WAS NOT SURPRISED to discover that Lucy McKenzie’s retrospective prevails over the Museum Brandhorst’s difficult basement level. The Glasgow-born, Brussels-based artist’s work, with its intense focus on interior design, set decor, and wall decoration, lends itself to the space’s idiosyncratic oversize atrium and narrow, tunnel-like galleries. Spanning the years 1997 to 2019, the works gathered in “Prime Suspect” are presented as docu-fictional “case studies” of twentieth-century artistic and cultural phenomena. The bulletin boards, mood boards, quodlibets, maps, murals, portraits, and furniture—largely painted by hand in vivid trompe l’oeil—suggest an investigative approach that is simultaneously macroscopic, microscopic, and comparative. Very little escapes McKenzie’s forensic gaze: She accords equal status to research materials (Quodlibet XIII [Janette Murray], 2010), production processes (as in the invoices in Quodlibet LIII and the knitting patterns in Quodlibet XXXV, both 2015), and “finished” works—a leveling and inversion of hierarchies that is in keeping with her dual-track activity as a producer both situated within the art market and independent of it.

Organized by Jacob Proctor, “Prime Suspect” foregrounds the decisive nexus between the aesthetic and the functional, with fashion design and wall decoration repeatedly acting as the intermediaries between the “fine” and the “applied,” yet it also highlights a second theme pervading the artist’s oeuvre: collective production practices. The entanglement of McKenzie’s various positions is nowhere better represented than in Faux Shop, 2018, installed in the atrium. Recently acquired by the Museum Brandhorst, the piece takes the form of an old-fashioned storefront. Reminiscent of Adolf Loos’s retail designs, it features black marble steps, sans serif signage, and a tartan-walled glass window display presenting a selection of blouses, skirts, and pants. These are items put out through Atelier E.B., a fashion label McKenzie founded with designer Beca Lipscombe, which operates semi-independently from her art practice.

Atelier E.B. (Lucy McKenzie and Beca Lipscombe), Faux Shop, 2018, mixed media. Installation view, 2020. Photo: Elisabeth Greil.

McKenzie’s art tends to incorporate bravura feats of painterly illusion. Her surface mimesis of wood, brick, and paper ephemera induces her audience to examine her works up close, to lean forward and even trigger the museum’s motion-detector alarms. (The ensuing beeping is the show’s unofficial soundtrack.) Take, for example, the faux-marble of Loos House, 2013, a blocky architectural sculpture based on the floor plan of the Loos-designed Villa Müller in Prague. Evoking Warhol’s “marbleized drawings” as much as Renaissance sculpture, McKenzie’s convincing painterly imitation of the Cipollino marble picks up on an overarching art-historical tradition integrating art, sculpture, and interior design. Yet the work also raises questions of value: Marble suggests aristocratic or upper-class taste while at the same time standing for nouveau-riche trash. (Trump Tower says hi.) And McKenzie’s meticulous simulation of the material redoubles this internal contradiction. Her ersatz marble requires a considerable investment of time, craftsmanship, and skill, undermining the relative high value of the original, whose status she simultaneously lays claim to.

Lucy McKenzie, Global Joy II, 2001, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 48 × 48".

In many cases, McKenzie augments the technique of mimesis with a separate yet related maneuver: that of defacement. Acts of defacement are a motif in If It Moves, Kiss It I, II, and III, all 2002, a suite of three interlinked case studies, and in the related Global Joy II, 2001. The first, If It Moves, Kiss It I, is a replica of a monumental graffiti-scrawled painting that appears for a brief moment in Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange (1971); Kubrick’s set dressing features a row of virile neoclassical male figures and was based on a Nazi-era mosaic by Fritz Erler for the Reichsbank in Berlin. McKenzie’s copy, which preserves the graffiti in Kubrick’s original, correlates with If It Moves, Kiss It II and III, both based on the same no-longer-extant mural at the Glasgow School of Art. A postmodern composition that is likewise a pastiche of classical precedents—Doric columns float in fragmented space—this mural was also covered in graffiti, yet in McKenzie’s copies, intriguingly, she does not preserve these marks: She has, in effect, defaced the original by restoring it to an imaginary pristine condition. Finally, Global Joy II is a replica of Walter Womacka’s Am Strand (On the Beach), 1962, a popular socialist-realist painting of a young couple relaxing by the seaside. Womacka’s image was ubiquitous in the former GDR, reproduced on postcards, calendars, posters, and a postage stamp. In McKenzie’s version, the young couple listen to music; the man rests his hand on the cover of Sonic Youth’s album Daydream Nation (1988), famously adorned by Gerhard Richter’s Kerze (Candle), 1982. Reproducing these historical models, McKenzie underscores parallels between “totalitarian” and “democratic” iconographies while also highlighting the ways in which audiences “collaborate” with those systems via appropriation and defacement. The works demonstrate the persistence of ideology via iconography and transmutes vandalism into a positive force.

McKenzie’s ersatz marble undermines the high value of the original, whose status she simultaneously lays claim to.

The chronological installation in “Prime Suspect” emphasizes the significance of the Cold War to the artist’s detective work. Some of the earliest pieces on view deal with McKenzie’s encounters with the West German painting scene around Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen while she was an exchange student in Karlsruhe in the early 1990s. For Depeche Mode Night, Depeche Mode Party, and Dark Friday, all 1999, she reproduces flyers advertising the sorts of goth and punk concerts that were popular at her art school, superimposing their designs on found abstract paintings that had been discarded by her classmates. At around the same time, McKenzie created pieces dealing with ephemera relating to the ’70s and ’80s Olympic Games in Munich, Moscow, and Los Angeles, including, for example, Top of the Will, 1998–99, a collage of magazine photographs, press clippings, and other materials featuring iconic gymnasts of the era, such as the Soviet idol Olga Korbut. The conjuring of socialist body discipline contrasts with McKenzie’s simultaneous evocation of the bohemian laissez-faire lifestyle of her West German art-student milieu. Funnily enough, the athlete’s pose in Untitled, 1997, reappears in the wall drawing Co?Në!, 2004, where a young woman with extra-extra-long armpit hair caricatures feminine clichés synthesized from deodorant advertising. The image foregrounds the way in which Western consumer capitalism assimilates and domesticates the emancipatory promises of feminist self-discovery. (Meanwhile, a much darker view of gender politics emerges in Quodlibet XL, 2014, a trompe l’oeil tabletop displaying books and other materials pertaining to prominent male artists and philosophers—Eric Gill, Otto Muehl, René Scherer, Loos, and Graham Ovenden—who have been accused of pedophilia.)

Lucy McKenzie, Top of the Will, 1998–99, C-prints, ink-jet prints, book and magazine pages. Installation view, 2020. Photo: Elisabeth Greil.

McKenzie also investigates urban infrastructure, as in Glasgow 1938 1966, and Ghent-Sint-Pieters, both 2017, the former a painting superimposing road maps of Glasgow from the two years in the work’s title—1938, when Glasgow still enjoyed its status as the UK’s second-most-important metropolis, and 1966, after violence had begun to plague the newly impoverished city—and the latter a replica of a mural in a metro station in Ghent, Belgium. Painted in 1960, that mural is a collage of pseudo-medieval imagery, such as knights in armor, tower battlements, and a coat of arms, all framed by a decorative border. A vertical strip in the center disrupts the composition, revealing the underpainting uncovered during a recent renovation: a 1913 map of European transportation routes created when the station was built. By training her forensic eye on this “found” palimpsest, McKenzie uncovers a change in cultural attitudes: from a modernist celebration of unfettered cross-continental transportation to a nationalistic fixation on kitschy nostalgia and touristic branding.

Lucy McKenzie, Rebecca, 2019, oil on wood, 81 1⁄8 × 42 5⁄8".

Glasgow 1938 1966 and Ghent-Sint-Pieters hang in the show’s final gallery, where they join additional loosely connected works. In Arcade 2, 2019, a hand-painted mannequin clad in a copy of a dress by French fashion designer Madeleine Vionnet stands in a wooden display case reminiscent of Faux Shop, which is installed nearby. On an adjacent wall, Rebecca, 2019, depicts the same mannequin in the same dress but in a bourgeois home or artist’s studio, with a parquet wood floor, a modernist marble sculpture, and a stack of books on a chair, including the 1953 volume Drama of Display: Visual Merchandising and Its Techniques; behind her is McKenzie’s Glasgow 1938 1966. Amid this matrix, the mannequin protagonist stands apart: This female avatar is at once real and a representation, a tool for display and “on display” herself, a historical allegory and a case study in critical historiography. She is indeed the “prime suspect” of McKenzie’s forensic fictions, a figure embedded in and embodying the interlocking public, private, and commercial infrastructures the artist has so methodically investigated and revealed.

“Lucy McKenzie: Prime Suspect” is on view through February 21, 2021.

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.

Sabeth Buchmann is an art historian, a critic, and a professor of the history of modern and postmodern art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.