Repressed Stillness In Charged Interiors: Lucy McKenzie at Cabinet

From a couture dress to a Soviet mural, the artist asks what counts as 'good' art

If there is a more erudite rebuttal to the last century’s orthodoxies of art and commerce than the work of Lucy McKenzie, I am not yet aware of it. Her first solo exhibition in London for nine years, ‘Giving Up The Shadows On My Face’, furthers her ongoing investigation – scholarly in its research and accomplished in its artistic execution – into the lines dividing fine and applied arts. 

At the centre of the show are the British painter Meredith Frampton, a remade couture dress by the celebrated French designer Madeleine Vionnet and a 1940s mural from the Russian State Library in Moscow. These three poles provide an armature across which different positions or modes of making intersect, dismantling complex hierarchies of art versus design, east versus west, now versus then.

Lucy McKenzie, Rebecca, 2019, oil on board, 2 × 1 m. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London 

Context, in McKenzie’s art, is never accidental. The paintings on display – ‘for sale in a private gallery’, as highlighted by an accompanying text – take their organizing principles from Frampton’s meticulously rendered portrayals of bourgeois life from the 1920s–40s. In works such as Rebecca (2019) – a meticulously depicted mannequin surrounded by objects (dress, map, chair) that appear elsewhere in the show – McKenzie evokes Frampton’s skill at capturing a repressed stillness in charged interiors. Whilst Frampton’s work may have been dismissed by his peers as stuffy, the inclusion of his Portrait of a Young Woman (1935) in the 2016 rehang at London’s Tate Modern underscored its fresh appearance alongside the modernist conventions of gesture or abstraction. In leveraging Frampton’s style, McKenzie casts new light not only on his historically overlooked oeuvre but also on her own ability to combine a formality of expression with a subversiveness of thought.

Lucy McKenzie, Quodlibet LXVI, 2019, metal, glass, oil on canvas, fabric and hand painted mannequin, 71 × 118 × 170 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London 

The process by which McKenzie remade the Vionnet couture dress with her assistants is relayed in several works: Quodlibet LXVII (Dressmaking) (2017–19), a sculpture-cum-painting of a workbench featuring a trompe l’oeil table top depicting dressmaking paraphernalia; Arcade 2 (2019), a shopfront-style vitrine in which the finished garment adorns a hand-painted mannequin; and the aforementioned painting Rebecca, which portrays the dress on the same model. By comprehensively dismantling the dressmaking process – from creative concept to physical realization to saleable commodity to, ultimately, artistic subject matter – McKenzie exposes the false parameters of qualitative differentiation that are frequently established between forms of creative labour. Seen alongside the Soviet mural, the works seem to ask: how do we qualitatively differentiate creative acts performed under free-market conditions from those enacted under, or on behalf of, a totalitarian regime?  Or, put more simply (and provocatively): how do we judge ‘good’ creativity? 

Lucy McKenzie, Arcade 1, 2019, metal, wood, oil on canvas, fabric and hand painted mannequin, 3 × 1.7 × 1.2 m. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London 

The largest wall of the gallery is punctured by rectangles cut through the plasterboard, revealing a mural-sized canvas lurking beneath, which appears to have been hidden – perhaps out of shame or revisionism. The visible sections are McKenzie’s sexed-up take on a mural from the Russian State Library in Moscow, her licentious vignettes suggesting a loosening of the strict moral code once demanded by Soviet society. Exploring the erotic tension between covering and uncovering, McKenzie asks us to consider how – and by whom – the impulse to reveal or conceal is coerced or controlled. The technical prowess of McKenzie’s artworks alone can absorb and seduce, but her ability to inculcate contentious issues fomenting just under the surface gives them an insurgent power that reminds us to question what art is and who it serves.  

Main image: Lucy McKenzie, Still Life, 2019, oil on board, 102 × 85 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London 

Oliver Osborne is an artist based in Berlin, Germany.

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