Motivated by the shelter of like-minded people ruled by friendship, Lucy McKenzie’s philosophy is clearly signalled by the conviviality of her work and by the ways in which she has clearly remained determined to tackle success and failure communally, to be judged by her foes as well as her friends. While a student at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, McKenzie drew on her teenage experience as a rriot girrlesque fanzine writer, hauling together gloriously ragged exhibitions such as Shake the Disease. Mixing work by established international artists Richard Kern and Kai Althoff with Scottish, German and Polish upstarts such as Keith Farquhar, Alan Michael, Ewan Imrie, Paulina Olowska and fellow members of Deutsch Britsche Freundschaft, McKenzie was certainly a precocious magpie, but she was no networker. Then as now, her practice centres on respect and a highly tuned sensitivity to the ambience of the work of other artists and writers. Proud of her alleged provincialism, she works only with close friends, establishing elegant affinities between her work and that by those she admires.
Group exhibitions organised by McKenzie have transformed the pseudo-globalised neo-conceptual facade of contemporary Scottish art, bringing together works by artists long separated by generations and geographies. Curated with Charisma collaborator Edinburgh-based artist Farquhar, It May Be a Year of Thirteen Moons, But it’s Still the Year of Culture at Transmission Gallery in Glasgow re-wrote the history of nineties Scottish art. Rebuffing the slick café-bar cultural caricature of Glasgow and its artists, Charisma reclaimed the working practice and inspired mistakes of New Glasgow Boy Steven Campbell, reading his work in relation to their own idiosyncratic practices and the maverick theatrics of Martin Kippenberger and Albert Ohlen. The Best Book About Pessimism I Ever Read at the Kunstverein Braunschweig broke new ground between a number of younger European artists and perambulating Scottish elders painter-playwright John Byrne and painter-novelist Alasdair Gray. Charisma also pioneered the sartorial cause that is Mark Leckey in Scotland, while taking glutinous greyhound paintings by Edinburgh’s Archie Webb and the psychedelic outpourings of Glasgow’s Ronnie Heeps to guttural comrades across the North Sea. McKenzie remains fiercely independent of the dominant aesthetics and promotional curatorial sectors of the art world, both in Scotland and abroad, rigorously overseeing all aspects of her public exhibitions and dealing only with imaginative private gallerists that fully understand what she is trying to achieve.
While living in Glasgow, she has been involved in a number of more intimate projects with close friend Olowska, a Gdansk artist that she met while on exchange to Karlsruhe Kunst Akademie in Germany in 1998. Drawn to the rich visual culture of the former Communist-bloc, McKenzie collaborated with Olowska on a number of exhibitions in Gdansk, including apt art show Dream of a Provincial Girl and Aesthetic Integration, a vast series of works painted on the walls of the Solidarity Shipyards as part of the annual Festival of Mural Painting in Kliniczna. In Scotland they conjured Heavy Duty, a substantial joint exhibition held at Inverleith House in the capital’s Botanic Gardens. In Warsaw they recently ran Nova Popularna, an organic moonshine bar decorated in psychic homage to the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange. McKenzie and Olowska flourished by ensuring that their saloon remained outside the trade routes and prosaic chit chat of global art. Women-only-Wednesdays at Nova Popularna made sure that Warsaw’s women didn’t get hassled. The local Polish clientele were greeted with a flurry of aniseed schnapps, honey vodka, Charles Rennie Macintosh curtains, seductive carved furniture, etched Nova Popularna chalices, vorticist wall paintings and diplomatic posing. The bar vitrine offered lady tennis player favourites KIM cigarettes as well as CDs showcasing the talents of the clientele. Edinburgh fashion designer Beca Lipscombe designed the official Nova Popularna dresses, aprons socks and belts worn by landladies McKenzie and Olowska and their loyal bar staff. Events were spearheaded by McKenzie and Olowska’s friends such as French artist Mathilde Rosier, who played piano behind the curtain, gentle jazz chanteuse Bianca Glazebrook and London covers band Donatella, featuring Bonnie Camplin dressed as a middle class housewife. Slideshows accompanied Thai barbeques while painter Merlin Carpenter played Take That records. During her days off, McKenzie worked on double portraits with Olowska and produced six hand-made posters advertising upcoming events, a few examples of which feature in this issue of Tate. A communal labour of love, Nova Popularna was a volte-face against insipid art groupies and globalised cultural entreprenurialism; its adjacent European fraternity might only be found, perhaps, in the small dark illegality of DIRT bar in Berlin or in the unreserved cultural intransigence of the Manchester Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
This summer, McKenzie returns home to her native Glasgow to organise another series of rainy Flourish Nights, shambling affairs that take place amongst the Baudelairean decay of Flourish studios and the Victorian wood panelled sumptuousness of Sloan’s Bar in central Glasgow. Last year saw music from Country Teasers’ decorous frontman Ben Wallers in addition to numerous films and performances, including McKenzie and Olowska’s poised Oblique Composition. This year will feature performances from Mancunian punk legends Howard Devoto and Linder Sterling in addition to Keith Farquhar and Craig Gibson’s A Rites of Passage From T-Shirts into Shirts, an elaborate cat walk presentation by Edinburgh’s self-styled Charisma Police. McKenzie continues to work on moist paintings and flashy iconographic short stories about haunted architects and balding popstars. For her solo show at Tate Britain, she will flaunt the Glaswegian Flourish posters within a faux salon-style gallery setting, festooned with marbled effect columns and courteous wainscoting inspired by 1980s editions of The World of Interiors magazine. The Flourish posters will be duly canonised, deliberately paraded with a baroque panache that is as dated as eighties wallpaper borders and museological art. The cultural and political devolution of the eighties and nineties has, of course, rendered Tate Britain an annex of heritage culture, no longer the axis of Modern Art in Britain but a nursing home for the aristocratic customs of a dying empire. McKenzie’s trompe l’oeil approach to institutional dogma and fashion is affectionately oblique, a sure sign that her alluring art périphérique is more widespread and influential than whatever she might produce personally, and is undoubtedly beyond the jurisdiction of any cultural plutocracy. McKenzie’s is a generous art that continues to be one made by her people for the good of people.