"Lucy McKenzie: SMERSH" at Metro Pictures (December 2006)

"Lucy McKenzie: SMERSH" at Metro Pictures
10 September – 8 October 2006

She has posed in pornographic photographs and manufactured fake banknotes. She often collaborates and sometimes curates. She once headed a record label and has hosted multiple salons. What thematic and structural foundation undergirds Lucy McKenzie’s diverse activities?
Let’s start with the photos. McKenzie has commented in their regard that, once she and Robert Kern had acknowledged and accepted the conventional roles assigned to them (of pliant model and authoratative photographer respectively), more equal exchanges ensued. If this evolution from a relationship of hierarchy to one based on dialogue recalls turn-of-the-century German sociologist Georg Simmel’s definition of coquetry – which, unlike prostitution, exists in the realm of eternal indecision, suspended between acquiescence and refusal – it is particularly fitting, given McKenzie’s interest in that period and in Berlin. It’s a distinction, too, that a suite of erotic drawings at Metro Pictures intimates. Consider how, in Rowan (2005), an ethereal nightdress opens just wide enough to reveal the curve of breasts, rendered in fine graphite line, or how, in Pilar (2005), the subject, semi-disrobed and face gently cradled in palm, is at once inviting and distancing. Neither gives herself over to the viewer; rather, both remain coyly in negotiation with him.
This negotiation – which, distended, becomes what we might think of as the very matrix of social interchange itself – is what underpins McKenzie’s practice. Her collaboration and curating often put her own work in conversation with others’, and it is in conversation, too, that the five sets of works on paper in "SMERSH" engage their audience. In addition to the erotic images, these include elegant drawings of the popular Hergé character Tintin, and Illustration for Unpublished Text (2005) which apes the style of early-twentieth-century propaganda posters. Both the graphic novel, in which given frames cue an imagined storyline, and the political poster, in which formal organization and representational verity take second seat to persuasive capacity, foreground the discursive space between object and receiver. This emphasis might explain how critics can, somewhat confoundingly, compare McKenzie simultaneously to Kai Althoff and to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. McKenzie dexterously mediates the former’s often self-indulgent expressionism and the latter’s often pandering design, resulting in art that is quirky without being too personal, accessible without being too commonplace.

Three framed ensembles from the OOCG series, made during the Glasgow-based artist’s 2004-5 stint at The Gun, a small independent Edinburgh newspaper, are the highpoint here. With their motley headlines and competing, adjacent columns, newspapers constitute not only a paradigmatic instance of simultaneity (recalling McKenzie’s own diversity of activity), but, to cite Simmel again, emblematize the polyphony of conversation, "the most adequate fulfillment of a relation, which is, so to speak, nothing but relationship." Featuring loopy headlines ("The Bastard Kind and the Birth of the Glorious Republic") and funky noms de plume (Oliver Twisted), the broadsheets function less as instruments for information than as strangely comforting affirmations of the persistence of sociability itself.