Lucy McKenzie’s largest American exhibition to date unravels like a postmodern mystery novel. The show begins outside of the gallery, where the artist has taken advantage of the floor-to-ceiling glass walls facing the Griffin Courtyard of the Modern Wing to construct a window display befitting State Street’s finest stores. A female mannequin in a gymnast suit sits on a glass-topped steel table as mechanized signs whir whimsically beneath a hand-painted title bearing the artist’s signature as if it were a venerable house of fashion. Once inside, the focus becomes painting, though one recalls that Warhol and Rauschenberg dressed department-store windows too. Four floor-to-ceiling panels display massive Tiffany-esque motifs of glowing skies and turbulent clouds drifting behind screens of leafy branches. The pictures within each are oddly cropped to describe the contours of the walls and ceiling of a fictional bar in an imaginary film in which these panels would hang as trompe l’oeil scenery. Indeed, McKenzie has trained in antiquated techniques of decorative painting, which include hyper-realistic depictions of landscape and still life meant to fool the eye in to perceiving representation as reality.
Six new paintings from a series entitled “Quodlibet,” a reference to the illusionistic painting of surfaces to portray casually arrayed objects, demonstrate her mastery of painterly deception. Three of these are hung as panels and take herself as subject, representing images and objects from her past work and her personal archive. Three others are built into the surfaces of glass-topped steel tables and depict tattered trade paperbacks. Like the quodlibets of art history, the seemingly casual arrangement of things is actually highly symbolic, if not also esoteric. A short video featuring McKenzie playing the lead as Agatha Christie’s popular fictional detective Miss Marple expounds on the show’s themes of mystery, gathered ephemera, and appropriation with humor and delightfully self-conscious style. Everyone will appreciate McKenzie’s masterful rendering of surface and texture more convincingly than reality, but viewers who want to get to the bottom of McKenzie’s mystery will need patience and the curator’s accompanying essay as their guide. (Elliot Reichert)
Through January 18 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.