“Art may be made in the medium of charade,” writes Michael Bracewell in an essay in Beca Lipscombe and Lucy McKenzie’s The Inventors of Tradition II (2016). The book is a testament to their collaboration as Atelier E.B, the company name under which Lipscombe and McKenzie sign their collaborative projects; a fashion label invested in “placing art and design on an equal footing”, as the brand describes, “applying methodologies from both spheres … embedding critique into clothing and applying the notion of ‘styling’ as an artistic strategy”.
In the book Ost End Girls (2014), a publication marking the pair’s collection of the same name the year previously, McKenzie and Lipscombe call up a 20th-century Italian artist to situate this “short story about fashion”:
Have in mind a painting by Giorgio de Chirico – receding arcade, long shadows, and a fleeing girl … De Chirico used the same cartoon to transfer the architectural structures that underpin the composition … the geometry of which is deceptively sophisticated.
The northern Italian city of Turin was inspiring to de Chirico and his visit to the city in 1911 greatly informed his painterly compositions of arcaded streets. “There is nothing like the enigma of the arcade,” he said, “which the Romans invented… there is something about it more mysteriously plaintive than in French architecture. The Roman arcade is a fatality. Its voice speaks in riddles.” As he declared, “the Italian city par excellence in which this extraordinary phenomenon occurs is Turin”.
Now, McKenzie and her short story scenographer’s favourite arcaded city collide. From November 2023 until April 2024, Pinacoteca Agnelli presents the third edition of Beyond the Collection with Lucy McKenzie and Antonio Canova. The Belgium-based, Scottish-born artist McKenzie accepted an invitation from the Turin art space based in the old headquarters of the Italian automotive giant Fiat, to consider her own artistic output in relation to the works of Italian neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova within the context of the north Italian city. The title of McKenzie’s show, Vulcanizzato, or “vulcanisation”, refers to the industrial mechanical process by which rubber tyres and the rubber soles of shoes are formed. Vulcan was also the Roman god of the furnace, and the show focuses on both the movement of symbols across various disciplines and the significance of production processes in shaping collective mythologies.
Vulcanizzato takes inspiration from Canova’s two plaster casts, Dancer with Finger on Chin (1809-1814) and Dancer with her Hands on her Hips (1811-1812). McKenzie brings the pieces into a conversation informed by contemporary anxieties surrounding technology, commerce and the media, framing Canova’s pieces within a painted scenario in the spirit of an 1814 backdrop by Felice Giani, alongside both male and female figures created by McKenzie. McKenzie’s interest in the historical and cultural associations of mannequins throughout the century is related to their status as both a vehicle for textile display and as sculpture, the “higher art”. The artist found a complex pattern of relationships between mannequins, statuary and sculpture: “The majority of the female statues that appear in public spaces are allegorical, personifying an abstract principle or, like mannequins, an improbable ideal … [but] both relate to time in a specific way, and function as devices to elevate by embodying and bestowing prestige.”
McKenzie’s mannequins are depicted against a magnificent three-part painted mural that lays bare the complicated relations between domestic design, artistic quality, and gender. As the show’s curator Lucrezia Calabrò Visconti explains, “Torino becomes a setting to talk about interior and exterior spaces and how they relate to gender and class.” The mural combines interior and exterior views of Turin, painted in detail with multiple figures and clues to these key concerns. As McKenzie writes:
These are well-dressed men surrounded by the paraphernalia of interior design: fabric samples and swatches, magazines, cushions, ornaments, and a portfolio. They are the celebrated Turin figures Carlo Mollino (an architect and designer) and Giovanni Agnelli (an industrialist), both of whom cared deeply for interior decor, regarding it as vital to their personal creativity and their precisely orchestrated public images. But they also wished to situate themselves in the world of action, sport and industry, so it became necessary for these facets of their personalities to be disguised. To counteract the emasculating influence of soft furnishings, these men used women as stand-ins: Mollino with hired models (at first friends, later sex workers) in photoshoots; Agnelli with his wife Marella. It is interesting that in coffee table books documenting the homes and gardens of the Agnelli family, Giovanni is never depicted alone in a room.
Retail is integral to this play of interior and exterior in the civic setting, and particularly to Turin as cradle of the automotive industry (the car, incidentally, was the Futurist metaphor of choice). What emerges through McKenzie’s work are the historical and social dimensions that underline the distance between the history of art and the decorative arts, and the history of fashion, design and consumer objects. She brings together elements of the neoclassical and the traditional stage-managed diorama, containing the echoes of a gentler, more refined time where polite society could engage with commerce bathed in the more forgiving light of Arcadian memories. McKenzie’s skillful use of trompe l’oeil provides a space for the figures to act out their undefined purpose, like wordless actors with a painted script, harking back to the oblique playfulness and symbolism of Ost End Girls’ storytelling. ◉
Lucy McKenzie and Antonio Canova: Vulcanizzato at Pinacoteca Agnelli, Turin, from November 3, 2023 to April 2, 2024.