ART in the 1990s. If it wasn’t Damien Hirst electrocuting flies and encasing sharks in formaldehyde, it was Douglas Gordon slowing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho down so much that it took 24 hours to finish.

Conceptual art was in. The installation was king. And yet some artists were still painting pictures.

Lucy McKenzie was one of them. “People have been daubing stuff on walls for thousands of years,” she reminds me. “It’s not going anywhere.”

Today, it’s going to an art gallery beside the River Mersey. We are on the fourth floor of Tate Liverpool and McKenzie is looking around her at 30 years of work on the walls. The Glasgow artist, who now lives in Brussels, is here for the press day of her first major UK retrospective.

She’s pretty pleased about it. Or least I think she is.

“Of course, I’m very grateful that there is the interest. And it takes so much effort to get all this work together.

“But you might think from the work that I’m a nostalgic person. But when it comes to my own work, not particularly. I’m already thinking about a show in January.”

She looks around the room we are standing in. “But the great thing is to be able to see things that would never have been put in proximity before and I take it as a learning exercise to see what kind of threads have gone through the work.”

HeraldScotland: Kingo in "Ruby" housecoat, 2011 © Lucy McKenzie. Image courtesy of the artistKingo in "Ruby" housecoat, 2011 © Lucy McKenzie. Image courtesy of the artist

There are a few. Cats and clothes and culture for a start. A love of trompe l’oeil, a fascination with trying on other people’s styles, a willingness to engage with commercial artforms whether it be sign-writing of book covers, a love of marrying conservative form to subversive messaging, a sparky, punky spirit that might not be evident at first glance but is there in both her work and in McKenzie herself.

It’s a Monday morning and I’m being given a guided tour of the exhibition by the artist herself. In passing we will talk about her life in Brussels, Brexit, the male gaze, Atelier E B, the fashion label she set up with her designer friend Beca Lipscombe and how this whole adventure all started for her back in Glasgow at the beginning of the 1990s.

McKenzie made a splash straight out of the gate. At the turn of the century her work was included in the British Art Show, and as part of the Beck’s Futures in 2000, a year after she started exhibiting.

McKenzie was very much part of the Glasgow scene of the time. Franz Ferdinand played early gigs in her studio and the city turns up again and again in her work, in the form of maps she’s created or sketches of places she used to go.

But earlier this century she moved to Brussels and now really likes the distance between past and present. “I found it a very useful way to be an outsider,” she says.

“I have a really wonderful working situation there. I have a studio and I’m renovating this big house, so I have no plans to leave.”

Her early work played with ideas about power and geopolitics in sport. She painted striking fractured images of gymnasts such as Olga Korbut.

HeraldScotland: Untitled 1997 © Lucy McKenzie Courtesy of the artist and Cabinet LondonUntitled 1997 © Lucy McKenzie Courtesy of the artist and Cabinet London

For Top of the Will (1998-99), she and her friends even dressed up as Olympic athletes.

“The idea was to combine all this official photography with images of normal people sitting around a bit knackered,” she says.

It was a way of contrasting the symbolism of such events and the political reality they represent. “Like the world fairs, it’s very passive-aggressive geopolitics,” she suggests.

In the next room we stand in front of one of her many Quodlibet paintings. They offer a distinctive take on trompe l’oeil, rendering familiar objects in an ultra-realistic manner. It’s a painting of a pinboard with knitting patterns, scraps of notepaper, a pair of knitting needles and some wool and a photocopy of an annotated map of Scotland. It’s a bravura example of McKenzie’s technical skill.

“This is a pinboard I made as a portrait of the woman who did all the hand knitting for us for our collection,” McKenzie explains, referring to her work with Lipscombe. “And she just gave me a bunch of things that were connected to her job.”

She points out a series of dots on the “photocopied” map. That’s where the women who knitted for them lived. “Chronic knitters,” she says. “These are women who have to knit because if they didn’t, they would smoke themselves to death.”]

HeraldScotland: Quodlibet XIII (Janette Murray) 2010 © Collection Nicoletta Fiorucci Russo De Li Galli LondonQuodlibet XIII (Janette Murray) 2010 © Collection Nicoletta Fiorucci Russo De Li Galli London

The canvas next to it offers a blue backdrop on which she has placed letters from the Royal Bank of Scotland and HMRC. “I just got photocopies and just pasted them into the picture so it’s not hand-painted.”

The reason? She was worried that people were marvelling at the style and not the content. “You build up a system so you can undercut it and say, ‘No, this is interesting not because it took hundreds of hours to make. I’ve actually got something to say.’”

So, what are you saying here, Lucy? “It’s the nuts and bolts of having a fashion label. It’s the boring grunt work. It’s not about beautiful Russian girls on a catwalk it’s about f****** RBS and what a pain in the a*** they are.”

What becomes clear is that McKenzie’s work is playful but purposeful too. She loves trickery and surprise, but she wants to speak about the world around her. Perhaps that comes from her childhood. Art growing up was the very air that she breathed, she says.

“But always in a balance with other things. My parents were part of the anti-nuclear movement. My mum worked for Women’s Aid. So, it was always connected to other things as well. And it was very sociable.

“I learned from very young that art wasn’t something you could be excluded from. That’s a very lucky thing to feel.”

She has been in Liverpool two weeks now. Her first proper visit to the UK since Brexit.

“Now being here I just feel sad. At least in Scotland you have that bat-squeak of hope. There are still things in the game that could radically change in Scotland if you think about independence.

“But you just wonder, what is the future for England?”

In the last room of the exhibition there are two paintings of the same subject painted 10 years apart. They show a woman sitting beneath a reproduction of a pornographic panel by the Italian comic-book artist Milo Manara. One disappeared for years so she decided to repaint it.

“It was based on a real experience,” she says. She was invited to a fancy dinner at a private art foundation and when she got there, she found the room decorated by Jeff Koons’ Made in Heaven series which he made with the porn star Ilona Staller, aka Cicciolina.

“I remember turning to the girl at my side and we looked at each other with an exhausted look. This is the backdrop to the art world. People think it’s absolutely normal that we should eat under a bum hole, Cicciolina’s bum hole.

“So, I wanted to do something that encapsulated that feeling of fatigue.”

She looks around at the work in this room, at the work in the gallery. “We all have to define what we consider pleasurable.

HeraldScotland: Lucy McKenzie at Tate Liverpool. Photograph Brian RobertsLucy McKenzie at Tate Liverpool. Photograph Brian Roberts

“I work with all of these things because it turns me on. The silk, the cats and the dresses.

“I have just such profound memories of encountering art as a young person and it just blowing my mind and it’s always been about things that were a bit weird, a bit pervy and very girly.

“And what’s great about doing a show like this is some little kid might see something and think that’s weird and not be able to get it out of their mind and might make them feel all right about liking cats and dresses.”

Lucy McKenzie continues at Tate Liverpool until March 13, 2022