New York’s Chelsea district, with its rough-around-the-brick-edges elegance, camp leanings and Manhattan sass, is a good place for Lucy McKenzie’s art. Witty in parts, sexy in others, the works on paper—dedicated, in the main, to exploring cartoon genres—hang comfortably on the gallery walls.
It’s funny to see two copies of the Edinburgh magazine The One O’Clock Gun, framed with pride and accompanying drawings. I have enjoyed seeing McKenzie’s line illustrations in this high-minded, highly affected and most excellent rag. One scene shows an effete young man, gesticulating with long fingers while he holds the base of a Martini glass, an anonymous girl, silhouetted, gazing attentively, and a frowning man with beer and fag, scowling across at both of them—it’s full of character and style. Revealingly, the images placed around the main spread are less effective and simply not as good—as if they need a textual context to shine.
Tintin gets a lot of attention in other work. A modern-day man, dressed up in Tintin garb and sketched in coloured pencil, is transformed into a long and rangy figure with an aloof expression, unlike the quirky, cheeky scamp of Hergé’s comic-books. In a series of three large-scale paintings on paper, McKenzie mimics Hergé’s style, blowing up the outline, colour and poses.
In ‘Cheyney and Eileen Disturb a Historian at Pompeii’, the classic comic look of surprise—beads of perspiration springing from the face like exclamation marks—sets the piece alive with dramatics and an affectionate irony. ‘Simon in Fort Greene’, is a snowy, night-time scene, full of mystery and suggestion as a man walks out of his New York brownstone apartment, putting on his gloves and holding two letters. He is smart, handsome and from the 1950s. His setting, however, though sharply composed, is less slick than the man deserves.
Conversely, in McKenzie’s series of erotic sketches, it is the outline that is the problem. She draws women who have haircuts from the early 1990s—short and styled—with a thin dressing gown hanging just over their breasts, or around their shoulders. The pencil marks are light and a frustrating mix of sketchy and definite—rendering them neither, and with traces of rubbings-out which may well be deliberate, but just look scrappy.
There are also some fine, large, abstract geometric forms in shades of black, white and grey, but they’re at odds with the character-based work—I’m not sure that either is enhanced by the juxtaposition.
A New Yorker told me recently that the city is in some ways very nostalgic. There is an element of this in McKenzie’s work, which is perhaps why the surroundings suit it so well. It is all about style, and needs to be rendered with all the finesse and assurance of the worlds it is mimicking. The final cut in many of the works is not quite there, but when—as with her contributions to the Gun —her work is given a new setting and purpose, it glows like a pearl.
Ruth Hedges is a London-based freelance writer