Outside In: Thomas Lawson on the Art of Lucy McKenzie

Article excerpt

LUCY MCKENZIE GREW UP in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1980s and early '90s, an era that saw the dismantling of much of the United Kingdom's welfare state in service to Margaret Thatcher's idea that "there is no such thing as society"--only striving, self-interested individuals who should be given every encouragement to make their own way in the world. This philosophy was widely understood as a sick joke in old industrial cities like Glasgow, whose economies had been all but destroyed by the forces of global capital. In response, in Glasgow at least, the political and intellectual classes began to see themselves as aligned with the still-extant socialism of Eastern Europe rather than with the rampant capitalism being rearticulated in London. This meant that for two decades (roughly from the early '70s to the early '90s) progressive Scottish artists argued for politically engaged figuration and for a lot of public art, mostly murals, often produced by collectives. By the time McKenzie went to art school, a younger generation of neo-Conceptualists, led by the likes of Christine Borland and Douglas Gordon, had made most of this well-meaning stuff look downright backward and utterly naff--which made it also, therefore, ripe for appropriation by a young artist trying to find her own place in this particular contemporary art scene.

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McKenzie's practice since, though anchored in an expansive idea of painting, can seem at once inexplicable and all-too-obvious, defined as it is by protean cross-disciplinarity and an attraction to recherche styles, texts, and images pungently redolent of the historical dustbin. In casting about for a critical frame, one is certainly tempted to draw correspondences between her strategies and the local conditions cited above. There is, for example, her penchant for almost glibly naturalistic figuration, for murals, for projects that instigate a certain collectivist esprit de corps, all of which have distinguished McKenzie from the artistic generation immediately preceding her. And yet, of course, something more than a simple anxiety of influence is at work. Recalibrating her appropriated elements in paintings and drawings as well as in installations, collaborations, and endeavors that fall outside the realm of art proper--e.g., a record label named Decemberism--McKenzie seems always to be working toward the construction of a larger, more worldly notion of self, one that is too big for Glasgow, as it were. She tries on different roles, most of them freighted with layers of overdetermined meaning, as if to liberate herself from the mundane (or even the germane).

For me, McKenzie's art bespeaks the complexities of being a misfit from a small country. If, as critic Terry Eagleton observed not long ago in these pages, Oscar Wilde made an art of "parodying or inverting the stale wisdom of the metropolis"--using the language of the dominant culture against itself, as any good colonial subject would--so McKenzie might be said to turn that strategy on its head, adopting the modes and manners of the provinces and re-presenting them with the confidence of the center. Though much of her work has been made in the peripheral cities and smaller museums of northern Europe, she was also a very precocious participant in the Walker Art Center's 2000 survey "Painting at the Edge of the World" and had a solo show last year at Metro Pictures in New York. Having moved recently from Glasgow to Brussels, she has also lived in Berlin and spends time in Gdansk, Poland, and in New York. She presents herself, in short, as a provincial (a series of exhibitions that she and Polish artist Paulina Olowska curated in Sopot, Poland, in 2000 was called "Dream of a Provincial Girl"), but one with a very cosmopolitan flair. She seems to revel in being someone who, as she says, "visits" the art world yet remains firmly planted in the "normal life" of a small city. Indeed, as she observed in a published conversation with Olowska, "I certainly place some value on showing things that are actually relevant on my home turf, without a uniform sheen of kunstverein professionalism. …