Lucy McKenzie: Manners

Villa Müller

The work of art aims at shattering man’s comfortable complacency. A house must serve one’s comfort. The work of art is revolutionary, the house conservative. The work of art points man in the direction of new paths and thinks to the future. The house thinks of the present. Man loves everything that serves his comfort. He hates everything that wants to tear him away from his secure and safe position, and is burdensome. And so he loves the house and hates art.

— Adolf Loos, ‘Architecture’, 1910 [1]



In the spring of 2013, Lucy McKenzie made a trompe l’oeil installation after Villa Müller, a house in Prague designed in 1930 by the Austrian architectural polemicist Adolf Loos. Head-height, makeshift wooden cubes substitute Loos’s monolithic concrete pillars, while the architect’s signature green Cipollino marble cladding is paraphrased by McKenzie’s approximately rendered trompe l’oeil canvases, stapled and glued into place over the tentative structures. Painted volumes abut one another or else stand loosely grouped. The central feature of her exhibition ‘Something They Have to Live With’ at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Loos House (2013) is basic in effect.[2] Both arrangement and painting insinuate an opulent domestic space, rather than reconstructing it exactly. McKenzie’s roughness of delivery swiftly dispenses with the notion that her citation of Loos is one of cultural veneration or benevolent appropriation. ‘Something They Have to Live With’, much like McKenzie’s output as a whole, is not about loving or even liking culture; it is about articulating the manners of cultural power.

McKenzie’s interest in a figure as contradictory and bombastic as Loos speaks to the style of quotation that her practice so masterfully trades upon. Her strategy of authorship has largely been built upon the highly particularised importation of other personas, styles and architectures: Hergé, Jacques-Louis David, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Charlotte Salomon and Muriel Spark, as well as a host of the artist’s own friends and family, have all featured as subjects and ciphers. But rarely are they appropriated purely for their aesthetic qualities. Rather, the histories that lie between object and persona coagulate in McKenzie’s paintings and installations into contradictory composites. So, too, ‘Something They Have to Live With’ plays with the complexity between Loos’s problematic persona and the embedded politics within the Villa Müller.[3]

Commissioned by the construction magnate František Müller in 1928, Villa Müller embodies much of the philosophy of Loos’s controversial essays.[4] In his self-aggrandising terms, the house is the finest example of ‘spatial interaction and spatial austerity’.[5] Or, in other words, it uniquely betrays Loos’s interest in domestic control: the interiors of Villa Müller frame other interiors, and the visitor is subject to this framing too.[6] Such contrivances are a consequence of the house’s striking rejection of a traditional floor plan; the interior is a complicated sequence of contiguous spaces on multiple levels, involving recesses, raised platforms and anterooms. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the house’s Zimmer der Dame, or ‘The Lady’s Room’, an intimate platform Loos designed for Müller’s wife, Milada. Ensconced in the heart of the building, this dais structure does not orient itself towards the exterior window (intentionally placed too high to afford a casual view onto the street), but to another window that looks down into the living room, further into the house. This vista, to which Loos assigned a gender, encases and dramatises private activities: movement below no longer appears casual, but theatrically staged and surveyed. The Zimmer der Dame is a space from which to see and also be seen.

Attuned to the erotics of such architecture, ‘Something They Have to Live With’ is a Trojan Horse for both Loos and the Stedelijk. For one, the title of McKenzie’s exhibition is a knowing barb. It indicates the problems of social tolerance, perhaps even of endurance, of grinning and bearing it. Secondly, it functions as a critique of the maker’s expression of arrogance; the work sabotages its source both practically and conceptually. The approximation of marble, at odds with McKenzie’s impeccable painting technique elsewhere, and the rough, theatrical assembly of the volumes conspicuously presents the artificiality of her quotation of Villa Müller. McKenzie’s rendering is not exact. In fact, it is wilfully ‘off’. Her trompe l’oeil presents itself as ornament without practical function – in open conflict with Loos’s eristic declarations: ‘good architecture can be described but not drawn’, [7] ‘the baby talk of painting’,[8] ‘the walls of a building belong to the architect’,[9] ‘freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength’.[10]

Her exhibition took place in the Stedelijk’s Hall of Honour, a gallery in the museum’s historical building that functions as a through-route, knitting together the rest of the galleries, and which has remained largely unchanged by the museum’s recent and controversial refurbishment.[11] Like the partial reconstruction of the Zimmer der Dame that sits within it, this is a space that frames other spaces – an embedded interior that only looks further into itself. The provisional quality of McKenzie’s installation – its collapsible, moveable state – actively works against the monumental nature of both her source and the site of display. It denatures these mythic spaces and the mechanics of their cultural cachet through the construction of fleeting seduction: her painting is ‘just enough’ to be convincing, but no more, while the dimensions of the wooden structures bear the hallmarks of gallery pedestals and visitor benches. McKenzie continually hints at the unease of contemporary exhibitions, whose temporary furniture and walls are a physical by-product of art institutions’ necessarily short-term commitment to artists. Three large painted works in the exhibition also play with the notion of ‘made-to-order’ prestige: a triptych of oil canvases that reproduce colourful geometric arabesques from the Alhambra palace in Granada, scaled to fit the walls of the Hall of Honour exactly (Alhambra Motifs I–III, 2013). Of the pairing of Villa Müller and the Alhambra, the artist has commented, ‘I realised that these two places share several things in common: they’re archetypal, ideal representations of perfection in interior design; they’re UNESCO-protected places; and in both, women are present but also hidden from the outside world.’[12] Though undoubtedly seductive, the exhibition wrong-foots aspirations to greatness, both warning against and delighting in such folly. After all, misplaced seduction is not only the effect of McKenzie’s work but also its subject.

Largely comprising portraits, still lifes, scaled architectural elevations and installations, McKenzie’s body of work could be formally characterised as representational painting: the expressions of an agent who has elected to speak on behalf of another party. Permission is irrelevant; technique is key. Within representational painting, seduction is most easily elicited through verisimilitude – painting tries to persuade us to perceive illusion as reality. Like Zeuxis attempting to pull back Parrhasius’s painted curtain, the verisimilitude of painting appears to both enchant and enslave the viewer within the moment of artifice.[13] Art historian Hanneke Grootenboer argues that painting’s verisimilitude appears to be a revelation of a truth ‘precisely because it is in the moment of deceit that our perception fails’.[14] Trompe l’oeil is thus the terminal of painting’s verisimilitude; its act of forgery is integral to the distinction bestowed upon painting.

In the autumn of 2007 McKenzie enrolled at the Institut Supérieur de Peinture Van Der Kelen Logelain, a decorative painting academy founded in Brussels in 1882. Submitting herself to such schooling was partly a response to her desire to improve her painting technique, and also an attempt to question whether ‘intellectual flexibility and a high degree of skill were mutually exclusive’.[15] The school’s rigorous course of trompe l’oeil marbling, wood graining and panel decoration was accompanied by lessons in professional etiquette: ‘Don’t smoke, don’t listen to music, wear a clean coat, if your client is titled make sure to address them by the correct title.’[16] Van Der Kelen’s intersection of professional technique and behaviour (skills performed within and shaped by domestic spaces) blends seamlessly with McKenzie’s project. She has since adopted some of the school’s exercises and formats as her own, namely the quodlibet – a type of trompe l’oeil involving tableaux of small and intimate objects, and that takes its name from the Latin for ‘that which pleases’. Embodied in paintings by Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (c.1610–after 1675), Edward Collier (c.1640–1708) and, later, John Frederick Peto (1854–1907), to name only a few exemplary practitioners, the quodlibet is a combination of consummate painterly skill and visual punning.

In McKenzie’s quodlibet series (2008–ongoing), she typically depicts the contents of a wooden table or a cork pinboard, repeating and reworking the format for multiple purposes: for training (to simply improve the artist’s technique), self-promotion (McKenzie’s collaborative design project Atelier E.B. published a pinboard painting in the lookbook of its 2011 fashion collection),[17] advertising (an image used for the front cover of a Viennese hat manufacturer’s catalogue appeared again on the cover of the art magazine Mousse)[18] or exhibiting (‘50 Shades’, a 2012 solo show at Galerie Micheline Szwajcer in Antwerp, featured almost exclusively paintings from this series).[19] Within these repeated gestures is the possibility of stitching together broader narratives within the series, as if the viewer were entering a Kim’s Game with the artist. The quodlibet format nixes the question of what might ‘count’ as legitimate subject matter: scraps of paper, buttons, business cards and postage stamps are as valid within the quodlibet as books, logos and photographs. The ruse of material equality gives the pictorial format its riddling quality, and the subject of a quodlibet is rarely its meaning. Rather, the genre points towards an event, a persona or a problem (usually the ultimate problems: death and vanity). Gijsbrechts’s quodlibets, for example, often feature scissors and combs – referencing the need for cleanliness, which, in turn, translates as godliness – while in McKenzie’s Quodlibet XII (Steven Purvis) (2011), heavy broad-blade shears appear as tools of fashion and craft, slyly doubling as Freudian symbols.[20]

‘Something They Have to Live With’ included two of McKenzie’s quodlibets, both dated 2013. The first is seemingly straightforward: a tabletop with fashion sketches and their visual and literary sources. The work served as a primer to Atelier E.B.’s showroom that appeared in tandem with McKenzie’s Stedelijk show.[21] The second quodlibet is more veiled. Hanging next to the Villa Müller installation, Quodlibet XXVI (Self Portrait) depicts an unusually empty pinboard, featuring only a printout of a partially redacted email chain. The painted piece of paper is headed by a short and entirely censored missive from the photographer Richard Kern to McKenzie, from February 2010. A nested email written by McKenzie appears below, this one legible with the exception of the names of places and people mentioned. It refers to an incident in 2010, when a male artist sought Kern’s permission to exhibit pornographic images of McKenzie that Kern shot and published in the late 1990s.[22] Addressing the curators of the project, McKenzie notes that while her permission to display these photographs is irrelevant (‘these photographs exist in the public domain, and of course are not my “work”’), she does not wish to provide the male artist content. This quodlibet tersely summarises the problems of appropriation (both of bodies and politics) and again raises the question of what counts as legitimate material: although a by-product of representation, McKenzie’s painting forcefully reclaims the photographs through a highly public exposé – a solo show at the Stedelijk. Throwing the weight and power of her practice behind such representation, as well as channelling the status of the Hall of Honour in which the painting hangs, McKenzie’s quodlibet absorbs the subject matter (both the original photographs and her email) back within the realm of what might indeed be considered her ‘work’.

Quodlibet XXVI (Self Portrait) has close links with McKenzie’s oft-reproduced painting Untitled from 2005 – a trompe l’oeil of a marble room in which a seemingly bored woman sits at a dinner table, playing with her food. A large cartoon of a Cicciolinesque woman masturbating appears above her head. The painting is not anti-pornography per se; rather, it seeks to precisely and coolly reject what it depicts: pornography used as art world backdrop. It is also the dead end of female portraiture: simulated sex and the tedium of such representations. McKenzie notes that Untitled ‘said all I needed to say’ in terms of figurative portraiture;[23] since then her subject matter has gradually retreated from such explicit representations of personal acquaintances as subjects and stand-ins for the artist’s own attitudes and desires.[24]

McKenzie’s formative, self-consciously trendy references to Erasure, Brian Eno and Depeche Mode have also dwindled. The work relies less on the slipstream of being on ‘the inside’ of a social milieu. Nor does it rely so much on the cultural mythology central to her early portraits. Instead she has come to emphasise the incongruity and individuality within moments of mainstream acclaim, and to use the mannerisms of others as talismans within her own work. Anachronistic influences such as the novelists Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith and Muriel Spark have featured as flashpoints within McKenzie’s work of the past three years.[25] This choice is not necessarily driven by esteem; it is strategic: all three posses notorious mannerisms that leak into their work to find new identities and parallels within their fiction.[26] McKenzie’s assertive shift in sources indicates an increasing precision in her selection of personas as material. Significantly, Quodlibet XXVI (Self Portrait) appears as a decisive progression: the strategy of authorship within the painting does not primarily rest on the narrative of an external persona (although many others are mentioned in the email, albeit erased), but on the exhibition of McKenzie’s own history, tying together personal and public moments from the late 1990s to the present. McKenzie openly reconnects herself with Kern, reanimates the photographs on her own terms and refuses the authorship of anyone but herself.

Being subject to representation is never comfortable; the sitter’s vanity and moral judgements are publicly played out in the artist’s riddles. Representational painting derives its distinction and power from its ability to use the external qualities of people and things (as well as that which often hides from images – namely, personal actions and behaviours) as its primary material. In the quodlibet, for example, everything is reduced to symbols: objects become attributes of manners good and bad. Its verisimilitude allows even distorted representations of real-life objects to signify reality without holding any responsibility to real life. McKenzie’s own dictum – ‘social engagement within contemporary art is itself a form of trompe l’oeil’ – hints at such an understanding.[27] Trompe l’oeil allows her to inhabit the aesthetic behaviours of her subjects, and her dexterity of styles is yet another expression of her agency. Embedding her artistic position within the Zimmer der Dame, for example, is a decisive form of control that refuses a neutral relationship with influence.[28] And while such form of quotation can at times imply an ambivalence, the stakes are raised enormously when McKenzie chooses to inhabit her own work, underlining the aggression within her ongoing commitment to representation.

Lucy-McKenzie Stedelijk

A version of this essay appears in Afterall #34 and Question the Wall Itself, Walker Art Center, 2017.

[1] Adolf Loos, On Architecture (trans. Michael Mitchell), Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 2002, p.73.

[2] ‘Lucy McKenzie: Something They Have to Live With’, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 6 April­–22 September 2013.

[3] Loos rejected the idea of himself as an architect, preferring to be described as a mason. His writing and work can be equally argued as misogynist – he diagnosed the degeneration of contemporary culture as a product of feminisation and ambiguous gender distinctions, and banned women from his Kärntner Bar in Vienna – and a proto-feminist – he argued for the public acceptance of women’s sexual drive, and against the need for women to dress according to society’s sexualised fashion: ‘A man who presumes to dictate [fashion] to women shows he regards women as bondslaves. He would be better occupied seeing to his own dress. Women are perfectly capable of looking after to theirs, thank you very much.’ A. Loos, ‘Short Hair: Short or Long – Masculine or Feminine?’ (1928), in Adolf Opel (ed.), Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays (trans. Michael Mitchell), Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1998, p.190. See also ‘Ladies Fashion’ (1898/1902), in ibid.; and Susan R. Henderson, ‘Bachelor Culture in the Work of Adolf Loos’, Journal of Architectural Education, vol.55, no.3, February 2002, pp.125–35.

[4] The architectural principles of Villa Müller can be located most notably in the following essays by Loos: ‘Interiors in the Rotunda’ (1898) and ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1908), both in A. Loos, Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays, op. cit.; and ‘Architecture’ (1910) in A. Loos, On Architecture, op. cit.

[5] A. Loos in conversation with Karel Lhota, Pilsen, 1930. Records kept in the Adolf Loos Study Centre in the Villa Müller, Prague.

[6] As Beatriz Colomina has argued, Loos’s architecture ‘is not simply a platform that accommodates the viewing subject. It is a viewing mechanism that produces the subject. It precedes and frames its occupant.’ B. Colomina, ‘Intimacy and Spectacle: The Interiors of Adolf Loos’, AA Files, no.20, Autumn 1990, p.8.

[7] A. Loos quoted in Heinrich Kulka, Adolf Loos: Das Werk des Architekten, Vienna: Anton Schroll, 1931, p.18. Translation the author’s.

[8] A. Loos, ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1908), in Ulrich Conrads (ed.), Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture (trans. Michael Bullock), Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1975, p.19.

[9] A. Loos quoted in Kenneth Frampton, ‘Introduction: Adolf Loos and the Crisis of Culture 1896–1931’, in Yehuda Safran and Wilfried Wang (ed.), The Architecture of Adolf Loos: An Arts Council Exhibition, London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1985, p.11.

[10] A. Loos, ‘Ornament and Crime’, Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture, op. cit., p.24.

[11] The enlargement and renovation of the Stedelijk Museum’s 1895 building, completed in the autumn of 2012, was designed by Benthem Crouwel Architects. The imposing new extension, built using Para-aramid (a white synthetic-fibre often used for aerospace construction), was quickly given the pejorative name ‘the bathtub’. The extension obscures the original façade of the museum and has significantly changed the historic views of the Museumplein, the public square onto which it faces.

[12] Lucy McKenzie, ‘500 Words’, [online magazine], 22 April 2013, available at (last accessed on 15 July 2013).

[13] In Natural History (BCE 77–79), Pliny the Elder relates a competition between the two fifth-century BCE painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis is said to have painted grapes so realistically that birds would come to peck at them. However, he was tricked when he attempted to pull back the cloth covering Parrhasius’s work, which turned out to be the latter’s trompe l’oeil painting. See Pliny the Elder, Natural History (trans. Philemon Holland), London: George Barclay, 1847–48, available at (last accessed on 15 July 2013).

[14] Hanneke Grootenboer, The Rhetoric of Perspective: Realism and Illusionism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Still-Life Painting, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006, p.42.

[15] McKenzie surmises, ‘I still do not have a clear answer and instead realised that the question itself became more and more uninteresting to me because it gives too much credence to contemporary art thinking.’ L. McKenzie, ‘Canvases Stretched in a Studio Far Less Convenient than One’s Own’, in Chêne de Weekend (exh. cat.), Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2009, p.12.

[16] L. McKenzie, quoted in Michael Bracewell, ‘Adventures Close to Home: An Interview with Lucy McKenzie and Marc Camille Chaimowicz’, Mousse, no.29, May–June 2011, p.58.

[17] See Atelier E.B., The Inventors of Tradition Collection 2011, New York: Westreich/Wagner, 2011. Atelier E.B. is a collaboration between McKenzie and the designer Beca Lipscombe.

[18] See Mode Mühlbauer, ‘Autumn/Winter Collection 2011’; and Mousse, no.29, May–June 2011.

[19] ‘50 Shades’, Galerie Micheline Szwajcer, Antwerp, 6 September–20 October 2012.

[20] Quodlibet XII (Steven Purvis) is titled after Atelier E.B.’s collaborating tailor, and depicts his tools, materials and other ephemera.

[21] ‘Atelier E.B.: Ost End Girls’, Magazijn, Amsterdam, 14–18 May 2013.

[22] ‘When I was in my late teens and early twenties I did soft pornographic modelling as a summer job, and I remember thinking at the time that it was somehow connected to deciding to be an artist, rather than having a proper job.’ L. McKenzie, quoted in M. Bracewell, ‘Adventures Close to Home’, op. cit., p.57.

[23] Conversation with the artist, 14 June 2013.

[24] McKenzie’s portrait paintings of real-life figures are rarely neutral: they not only reveal elements of the sitter’s persona or behaviour, but also use the sitter’s attitude as material. The complexity of Untitled (2005) owes much to the identity of the sitter, the artist Anita Di Bianco, as do McKenzie’s other portraits, such as a portrait of artist Keith Farquhar painted over a portrait of British Labour politician Peter Mandelson in Keith (2001); her sister Kerry McKenzie’s shadow over Europe in Kerry (2001); artist Lucy Skaer in the double brain/‘Braun’ paintings, both Untitled (2002); and artist Simon Thompson as Tintin in the colour pencil drawing series Tintin (2005).

[25] McKenzie’s exhibition titles ‘Slender Means’ (Galerie Buchholz, Cologne, 10 December 2010–26 February 2011) and ‘Something They Have to Live With’ are variations on names of stories by Muriel Spark and Patricia Highsmith respectively. McKenzie painted a dust jacket titled ‘The Girl Who Followed Marple’ as a cover for E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) – a pun on Highsmith’s The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980) – for her exhibition ‘50 Shades’ at Galerie Micheline Szwajcer, Antwerp, 6 September–20 October 2012.

[26] Agatha Christie’s unexplained ten-day disappearance on 3 December 1926 was interpreted by some as an attempt to frame her husband for her murder; Patricia Highsmith buried her fictitious bodies in her real-life lovers’ apartments; and Muriel Sparks’s relationship to Catholicism was worked out through various novels, including The Comforters (1957) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), in which the character Sandy serves as a cipher for Spark herself.

[27] L. McKenzie, ‘Canvases Stretched in a Studio Far Less Convenient than One’s Own’, op. cit., p.12.

[28] McKenzie’s poster for the Stedelijk exhibition features a photograph of the artist encircled by her own artwork. The image appears to be a collage, but is in fact the result of a meticulously arranged photo shoot.