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Focus: Lucy McKenzie



In her work, Scottish-born, Belgium-based artist Lucy McKenzie mines and merges source material from the realms of political and design history, advertising and architecture, fandom and friendship. Specially trained in the commercial techniques of decorative painting, her primary mode is trompe l’oeil (literally, “deceive the eye”). She renders still lifes and lived spaces in such meticulous detail that specific content cannot be separated from the casually theatrical qualities of its formal presentation. Yet McKenzie’s practice is also crucially collaborative and interdisciplinary. The paintings operate in parallel with ongoing projects that engage other media, from writing to film to the design of clothing and interiors.

McKenzie creates environments, scenes, and stylistic contexts as much as individual artworks. For this exhibition—her largest in the United States to date—she has re-imagined the Art Institute’s Abbott Galleries variously as a dynamic shop window, an airy “Expo Hall,” and an intimate artist’s studio. Twelve new paintings made for this show will be augmented by four early canvases, as well as archival materials from McKenzie’s adolescent and student years. Similarly, a recent video installation breaks new ground for the artist at the same time that it marks a return to earlier work, renewing a past collaboration with photographer and filmmaker Richard Kern first initiated when McKenzie was a teenager.

While the appropriation of preexisting objects, imagery, and formats has always been fundamental to her work, McKenzie developed the Art Institute exhibition as a way to analyze the implications and possibilities of self-appropriation. In her words, “Thinking about how the access to and consumption of images has changed in recent years, I wanted to re-examine my relationship to appropriation. Every quote is an acquisitive, colonizing act, so how can one appropriate without inherent exploitation? By appropriating oneself?” The artist does not simply create in an echo chamber, however. Her work is personal yet open, demanding but inviting. McKenzie invests in anachronistic, craft-based techniques to rich and radical effect, not only illuminating what she calls “an alternative history of painting,” but, in fact, extending it.


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