|Annette Lemieux's 1991 work "Sleep Interrupted" is an homage to Philip Guston. (Collection of Emily Fisher Landau)|
‘Objects’ of depth as well as diversity
WORCESTER - Annette Lemieux, the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Worcester Art Museum, was given a solo show early in her career by an artist-run East Village gallery called Cash/Newhouse.
“What was amusing about the response to this show,’’ she noted later, “was that people thought it was a group show!’’
The response may have amused her, but it didn’t make her change course: Lemieux has continued to make art that is unusually miscellaneous, even in this era of artistic dilettantism.
At first glance, the Worcester show, which was organized by the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, has the look of a juried art prize displaying work by a dozen different artists. It contains paintings, sculptures, readymades, installations, and photographs.
But gradually, piece by piece, Lemieux dismantles this impression, revealing an oeuvre of undeniable integrity.
“The Strange Life of Objects,’’ as the show is aptly titled, is not quite first-rate. Like so much art that attracted attention in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s too hermetic, too self-involved. The works are big, lush, museum-ready. But many emerge from closer inspection as facile gestures, dependent on daisy chains of wispy references that could not possibly be followed without committing to a virtual séance of curatorial handholding.
Still, to say as much is merely to describe the besetting sins of a whole class of art from this period. In many ways, Lemieux is ahead of the pack. The more time I spent with her work, the more I warmed to it.
Lemieux teaches at Harvard University and shows in Boston at the Barbara Krakow Gallery. She was born in Norfolk, Va., where her father, a Marine, was based. When her father was posted overseas, the family moved to her mother’s hometown of Torrington, Conn.
After ritually burning her Catholic school uniform and declaring she wanted to be an artist, Lemieux enrolled in art courses at Northwestern Connecticut Community College and then Hartford Art School.
She later moved to New York, where she found work as a studio assistant to the painter David Salle, one of the biggest stars of the 1980s. She was drawn into feminist circles and also became acquainted with the so-called Pictures artists - a loosely defined group using appropriated imagery, among them Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Jack Goldstein, and Richard Prince.
Lemieux’s own work progressed under the influence of all these affiliations and continued to draw on her own personal history, from which she intuited she had rich seams to mine.
I’m not so sure that turned out to be the case. There’s a detached, impersonal quality to a lot of Lemieux’s earlier, political work, which falls between the stools of poker-faced minimalism and a rather indiscriminate sensitivity to injustice.
One minute, we are reading excerpts, inscribed by the application of heat on cotton, from the journals of Jews who lived through the terror of the Nazis’ Kristallnacht. The next we are looking at a huge and clinical painting of the letter M, with the word MANNA running across top and bottom.
In one instance, the text has deep and troubling meaning. In the other, it’s little more than typography. This dissonance may reflect Lemieux’s restless search for hierarchies of meaning. But she is toying fussily with material that either demands better, or to be left alone.
Although her parents’ marriage dissolved when she was still a child, her father’s career in the Marines affected much of her subsequent trajectory. Military helmets, for instance, crop up frequently. One work, from 1984, called “The Seat of the Intellect,’’ is a World War II helmet hanging from the wall. Up close, against the helmet’s nicked and chipped patina, one can make out the musical score of a German waltz.
So: War and culture. Hardness and delicacy. The grim sobriety of military life and the frivolous gaiety of a waltz. Lemieux relies again and again on such dichotomies. If at times the results lack subtlety, she trusts in our willingness to look beyond the obvious.
Sometimes this works. I became fascinated, for instance, by the interaction on the helmet piece between the musical notation and the nicks and scratches, which seemed like notation of a different kind. In the blending of the two I sensed secret yearnings, and wondered about the indivisibility of the loving body and the fighting brain.
At other times, however, “beyond the obvious’’ translates to a series of increasingly esoteric references and historical allusions. Consider, for instance, “Building Strong Bodies and Minds,’’ an enamel painting divided into two halves, one with a pattern of circles in primary colors, the other with black circles.
Somehow, according to the wall text, and to Judith Hoos Fox writing in the catalog, we are meant to associate the colored dots with the iconic balloons on the packaging of Wonder bread as well as with a launch of hot air balloons, and to ask ourselves, “Which are the strong bodies and minds - those in corporate Technicolor, or those in black, a color that absorbs all others and reflects none?’’
Lord help us all.
But despite the odd work that collapses into pathos, and despite its tremendous diversity, the show does have a secret coherence.
The helmet’s spherical shape, for instance, chimes with circles and spheres that recur in different guises throughout the show, most enjoyably in two sculptures, “Potential Snowman’’ and “Reclining Snowman.’’ The “Potential Snowman’’ is three different size white balls, a carrot shape painted white, and a cluster of white rocks, all resting on a white base.
The ingredients are all there, one just has to put them together!
It’s a challenge that applies to the whole show, which is more concerned with the question of how to construct meaning out of thin air (or heavy snow) than with presenting parcels of ready-made meaning.
As the overt politics recedes in Lemieux’s recent work, the challenge of finding meaning becomes more pressing, more nakedly existential - but it’s also more eloquently stated.
A doorway, for instance, is obstructed by a wall of books, their spines facing inward so not even their titles are legible.
Ironically, it’s this idea of obstruction that opens up a deeper vein, explored in the second, smaller room of the exhibition. Here, bricks and a sense of weight become metaphors for an absurdist yet understated comedy that has echoes of Samuel Beckett and Philip Guston.
Guston’s late paintings, in which bricks also recur, emerge as perhaps the biggest influence on Lemieux. (One 1991 work, “Sleep Interrupted,’’ a blown-up photograph of a foreshortened girl asleep in bed that has a light bulb hanging in front of it, is a direct homage to Guston’s 1977 painting “Sleeping.’’)
“Moveable Obstacle I’’ and “II’’ are two sculptures made from wood and roofing tiles but resembling impenetrable brick walls. One is vertical, the other horizontal, and both are on wheels. Their height, width, and depth are determined by the artist’s own body with arms outstretched.
They’re eloquent metaphors for creative block - a condition one would like to crash through but may actually accompany you wherever you go.
They chime, too, with other works - “The Hard Go,’’ for instance, an arrangement of individual bricks, each with circular cavities and its own set of wheels; “Cement Shoes #2,’’ two blocks of cement cast around two absent feet; and “Walking on Water Revisited,’’ a blown-up photo of the artist at dusk, walking, it seems, on water.
All these works play with a sense of weight and lightness. They’re displayed in a room that, taken alone, would be enough to convince you of the quality and depth of Lemieux’s achievement.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.