Play, Shuffle, Repeat: Annelie McKenzie at CB1
Painting, perhaps more than any other medium, has existed as a site for reconciling the systemic biases of art history, of which a large percentage are encapsulated in painting's own history. Painting has historically referenced previous imagery – subjects of the Renaissance were aesthetic updates to earlier depictions of the myths of the Bible and ancient Greco-Roman cultures found in past sculpture, frescoes, mosaics, manuscripts, textiles, etc. Subsequent derivative idioms, such as the master's copy and homage, have lineages stretching back long before anything could have even been labeled pre-modern. Neoclassicism was an agenda-based, aesthetic do-over by definition; Modernism's brief, valiant attempt at creating a future caught its breath in the late 20th century and painting began, again, to eloquently engage in a conversation with itself about itself. Although in contemporary art this is not unique to any one medium, there is enough cultural resonance specific to painting that it justifies the reflexive nature of artists continuing to investigate its unique position in history. – Jason Ramos, Los Angeles Contributor
That unique position provides much to an artist regarding culture's representations and accounting of gender and power. An extended strategy for confronting these issues is manifest in the paintings presented by Los Angeles-based Canadian artist Annelie McKenzie for her first solo exhibition at CB1, The Enthusiast. As McKenzie herself puts it, an explanatory metaphor for her paintings is that they are cover songs. The cover song description is more expansive than the aforementioned master's copy – it offers more conceptual clues and implies the proclivities of the artist herself. Importantly, both cover songs and McKenzie's work are often expressions of sentimentality, or at the very least, employ aesthetics that are associated with ideas of sentimentality. In contemporary art, such expressions sometimes get cast in a dubious light without the contextual presence of intellectual rigor or irony. But genuine sentimentality itself, though spoken around and suppressed, arguably makes up much of painting's conceptual history, casting the past in a particularly wistful and romanticized light from the get-go. McKenzie's use of sentimental and gendered processes focus her art historical references through a satirical lens, revealing content where the personal and the political are one.
There are pointed, specific lessons McKenzie wants to share, and she often does so with the inspired comedic panache of a Kids in the Hall kind of variety (she is Canadian, after all). For instance, an homage to Caravaggio’s Judith’s Slaying of Holofernes on her website is entitled Caravag. Many of her works are 'songs' in the sense that they are stories, such as the exhibited work Laurencin Remix, which relates to the tale of Marie Laurencin, a contemporary of a more well-known Spanish pioneer of cubism. The painting itself seems almost infected with decorative relief. Closer inspection reveals impasto paint application matching tactile scale and eye-feel of the high profile filagreed frame details. Laurencin's flat, pink-grey-green world has erupted all over itself to become one of McKenzie's strange, crafty, painting-objects. Two Sisters (after Bess Larkin Harris), makes clear the doubling theme: 2 Canadian painters (McKenzie and Harris), 2 mountains, 2 paintings, 2 sisters. Two Sisters is typical of a whole sub-body of work that is an extended riff on the gender dynamics of the Group of Seven, an influential 1920s collective of Canadian landscape painters (which itself sounds kind of like a KITH sketch). In a work from McKenzie's site entitled Emily Carr Sees Gibb (oil and sparkle on found frame), a group of deftly indicated unicorns chase each other in a circle. “Eighth” Group of Seven member Emily Carr was a student of British painter Phelan Gibb, whose work – sans unicorn horns – serves as the basis of McKenzie's cover version. An exhibited painting Group of Seven Rhinestones (After Frank Johnston), itself a blown-up image of an earlier smaller work called Sparkle Group of Seven, from 2012, proudly amplifies and affirms the entire group's tackier leanings with regard to landscape painting.
Heroically sized paintings of the smaller paintings, that McKenzie describes as the stereotypically male equivalent of the smaller works, present a mind-bending formal jump and conceptual follow-through. They impressively assert McKenzie’s paint handling more than enough to be appreciated without a full understanding of their context. Illustrative tricks – the frame within the frame, and the simple drop shadow effect (reminiscent of Laura Owens's self-conscious shadowed strokes) replace notions of craft, sentimentality, and decoration with less touchy-feely notions of technique, illusion, and scale. What is gained and lost in the translation reveals a number of intriguing painting-specific issues that plug into McKenzie’s original art historical interests, albeit more aloofly. This aloofness may be the point of the larger works; her more essentialist notions regarding process and presentation are stretched almost to a breaking point. McKenzie is in effect repeating the conceptual move of making a painting of a painting, except now she’s making paintings of her own paintings… of other paintings. This strategy of crafting art objects to be the subject of one's own painting can either relegate the smaller works to preliminary studies, or edge the work into a zone that includes meta-still life artists such as London based painters Damien Meade and Jonny Green, whose individual practices involve crafting sumptuous, meticulous paintings of sculptural objects they have produced.
Zeroing in on the reasoning behind the large-scale blow-ups may be asking a lot of viewers, but for those willing to engage in depth, the larger works demonstrate an intent on McKenzie's part to give credit to her audience and stay ahead of their expectations. Catching up to her, a bar is set for a level of conceptual research and development we should probably be demanding from contemporary art in general. The tongue-in-cheek polemics of The Enthusiast speak to an inquiry of layered depth that is apparent up front. Her titular identification with and reference to Charlotte Corday, whose murderous actions have been canonized as art history, as well as her contemporizing of the decorative excesses of Tiepolo, both provide useful entry and exit ramps for a painting concept otherwise in danger of seeming solipsistic or limited in dimension. Embodying the best kind of tightly focused ridiculousness, the large works echo, double, allegorize, cover the ridiculousness that has relegated Marie Laurencin, Emily Carr, Bess Larkin Harris, and many other female artists from history to near-obscurity.