Lucy McKenzie: La Kermesse Héroïque

Curated by Milovan Farronato

10th May – 10th September 2017

Istituzione Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, Palazzetto Tito, Venice



For her first solo exhibition in Italy, La Kermesse Héroïque (The Heroic Carnival), the Brussels-based Scottish artist has made a group of new works to be shown at the Istituzione Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, including mural paintings on canvas, painted objects, sculptures and figures. In the Palazzetto Tito these are combined with elements of decor (such as lighting and furniture) to explore the relationship between style, ideology and value.

In 2014, the artist bought De Ooievaar, a dilapidated villa in the Belgian coastal town of Oostende, built in 1935 for a Catholic doctor with a large family. Its architect, Jozef De Bruycker, was active in the Flemish collaboration with Germany during World War II. As part of a painstaking restoration of its Art Deco, De Stijl and Postmodernist interiors, McKenzie has embarked on a long-term programme of research to uncover the conditions that produced this unique and remarkable design. As part of the exhibition a digital rendering of the building is projected. Venice itself has a specific history during the interwar period, in that it resisted the populist dogmas that dominated Fascist Italy, and maintained autonomy over its local cultural life. It was able to do this because its artistic and cultural elitism was so entrenched, and so economically effective, that it could not be co-opted. La Kermesse Héroïque makes an oblique reference to this by acknowledging the dynamic forces that give historic objects their power, which is often a synthesis of both reactionary and avant-garde positions.
McKenzie frequently employs methods and thought processes derived from the applied arts. In her painting practice this can be seen in the use of commercial techniques such as trompe-l’oeil, stencilling and sign writing. With its labour-intensive mode of production, and alignment of value with skill, trompe-l’oeil is an innately conservative idiom. But it is this conservativism that facilitates a tension in the relationship between form and content, and is thus able to generate a sense of immediacy while at the same time creating an emotional distance.

Painting in La Kermesse Héroïque is used in a variety styles, and on different scales – most notably in the form of large canvases that emulate murals typically found in railway stations and other public buildings. Stylistically diverse, these express a combination of optimistic global connectivity and provincial nationalism. For instance the replica of an existing mural in the Ghent-Sint-Pieters station depicts a fantasy of traditional Flemish pageantry. Due to recent refurbishment, a strip of the mural has been excavated to reveal the original decor, a detailed transport map of Europe painted for the 1913 Ghent World Fair. Aesthetically and ideologically opposed, these two layers are nevertheless products of the same belief that public space should recognise and respect its users – that it should aspire to being more than just a point of transit. From the Moscow Metro to Grand Central Station in New York, decoration of this kind is like the projection of a civic hallucination. Today, this has been supplanted by a stripped-down functionality and the privatisation of formerly public space. A map of Brazil from Congonhas-São Paulo Airport, others placing Budapest at the centre of the world, an abstract composition that has suffered inevitable wear and tear: all are painted with commercial efficiency and a bittersweet generosity.
Painting on a micro rather than macro level is used to render packaging for egalitarian luxury goods such as confectionary and tobacco, laid out as if part of a store display. The Modernism of the 1920s and ’30s drew religious and folk traditions into its stylistic orbit as part of the re-emergence of Nationalism across Europe, a Nationalism that was in turn spread and reinforced by everyday objects. Some boxes are copies of the graphic work of two female designers, the Hungarian Kató Lukáts and the Austrian Emmy Zweybrück. Their work for companies like the chocolatiers Altmann & Kühne expresses an anachronistic yearning for the lost Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The painted figures are re-purposed fashion display mannequins, with heads supplanted by Donatello’s busts of John the Baptist (in childhood and adolescence) and ‘dressed’ with trompe-l’oeil, contour-hugging sport suits. Lucy McKenzie produces fashion designs with her associate Beca Lipscombe under the name Atelier E.B, and for them mannequins are objects that lie at the intersection of art, design and commerce, which makes them open to re-assignment. The figures here were made to display a series of new Atelier E.B pendants that includes a 3D digitally printed cameo portrait of the Scottish Neo-Classical architect Robert Adam. Neo-Classicism was a primary site of Modernist experimentation, and Fascism’s utilisation of antiquity and historicism (as part of its ideological justification) also extended to the fashion industry.

In her 2015 exhibition Inspired By An Atlas of Leprosy, seashells, copper and (faux) marble acted as stand-ins for cultural value, and were presented as a critique of the conventions of exploitation in contemporary art. Here, in Palazzetto Tito, seashells (fashioned into lamps and used to locate cities of the world), are again used as surrogates, but this time for something vaguer – a zone where delightful space is not exclusively tied to or defined by private wealth.

Finally, the large faux marble sculpture in the central space is an approximate copy of a flagstaff holder positioned outside St Andrews House, a Scottish Government building in Edinburgh, which is, despite its national remit, designed in the Internationalist Art Deco style of a World Fair. It is painted to resemble marble, a material made of contrasting natural elements that have been compacted over time, much in way that the visual richness of Venice is a product of hundreds of years of conflicting styles and cultural forces that we read now as a pleasingly unified totality. A re-painting of a mural that is itself a layer underneath another painting signifies a series of ruptures that together produce a homogeneity of contrapositions. This is analogous to the perception of political history as it changes over time in response to shifts in contemporary understanding.

La Kermesse Héroïque is produced by Fiorucci Art Trust and Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa in collaboration with Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/ Berlin / New York and Cabinet Gallery, London.


All photos: Kristien Daems
Courtesy of the artist