Lucy McKenzie

Tate Liverpool - Until 13/03/22

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If I were to lift the lid off Tate Liverpool and peer into its LUCY MCKENZIE retrospective, it would be like diving head-on into a patchwork quilt of over 20 years’ worth of her work: a loud, can’t-quite-take-your-eyes-off quilt, incorporating various squares of juxtaposing material, each stitched together with powerful commentaries on feminism, mass media and gender power relations.

Showcasing 80 works of the Glasgow-born, Brussels-based multimedia artist, Tate Liverpool takes the crown for presenting the UK’s first major retrospective of McKenzie’s work to date. With signature hyperrealistic architectural paintings, illusionistic trompe-l’œil exercises, fashion items and even furniture the artist designed herself, the exhausting curation marks an assertive arrival of the internationally celebrated artist to the docks of Liverpool.

There’s art in unexpected places here: on ceilings, mannequins and TV screens, overflowing across several walls and into glass boxes. Not only does the exhibition shun the white cube aesthetic, it celebrates its very antithesis – satisfying the most diverse of artistic appetites.

Walking through the collection, each room is both a demonstration of McKenzie’s multidisciplinary talent and a natural showcase of time spent at decorative painting school – all despite being an established artist at the time. The illusionistic trompe-l’œil paintings, with their sublime lifelike detail, warrant special mention. The first of these works to raise my eyebrow, Quodlibet XIII (Janette Murray) (2011) also forced a study from various perspectives to reassure myself I wasn’t in fact viewing something three-dimensional.

Alongside a dedicated space to replicate nostalgic scenes from Nova Popularna – an underground bar and performance space she managed with Paulina Olowska in Warsaw – the works of McKenzie’s fashion label, Atelier E.B, are also present, with some items even for sale. Her partnership with designer Beca Lipscombe – exploring fashion research, commercial display and exhibition design – has made her interests even more expansive and demonstrates the more collaborative side of her work. “She dips into bits of history and looks at the work of different artists and different architects and designers,” curator Tamar Hemmes tells me. “It’s a way of using existing imagery rather than inventing her own and re-evaluating or re-examining it.” This is exemplified explicitly in the second room of the exhibition, where an array of work is presented focusing on media representations of athletes in the Olympic Games. In the oil painting Curious (1998), we observe from behind a runner bending over the starting blocks, highlighting popular media’s obsessive sexualisation of female athletes.

LUCY MCKENZIE Image

This feminist undercurrent runs deep throughout the gallery space, particularly in McKenzie’s later works which become slightly more autobiographical. Documenting a real incident, the 2013 painting Quodlibet XXVI (Self Portrait) incorporates a private letter addressed to a list of curators and artists who wanted to use pornographic pictures of McKenzie during the 1990s for an exhibition without her permission. By publicly sharing the exchange (undoubtedly something that many would have preferred to keep private), McKenzie subverts masculine entitlement and retains ownership of her body.

Upon closing the lid on the Tate, the display doesn’t make much sense at all. There’s no chronology and there’s certainly no order, either. But I didn’t feel the need to question it, and nor did I want to. “The works all sort of interact in a way where you can see different connections in different rooms,” Hemmes reassures. For a gallery space to hold so many contrasting ideologies, materials and artforms, it’s enchanting to experience the sense that each work has every right to be there. The more you peel back the lid and interrogate this exhibition, the more layers that fold out effortlessly in front of your eyes – whether you spot them at first or not.

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