Atlántica # 60

The following conversation between artist Annette Lemieux and curator Liz Munsell addresses elements of Lemieux’s decades-long practice that are resonating strongly with our contemporary political moment, as well as Lemieux’s exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which the two worked on together. 

Liz Munsell (LM):   Since the mid-1980s you have worked with a broad repertoire of images and objects sourced from everyday life, commercial products, film, and the visual arts. Antiquing with your mother as a child helped develop your sharp eye for objects with multiple past lives, which have been a constant in your work. What is your process of mining for source material? How has it changed over the years, and what has remained a constant?


Annette Lemieux (AL):   The early work’s process was: first the idea, then the materialisation of the idea in the best way possible to communicate the idea. 


I collected old image books and objects from bookstores, antique stores, flea markets, etc., and compiled an image and object bank in my studio.  If an idea required a particular image or object that I did not have, I would go out and find it. Or the images and objects in the studio would trigger an idea.


With the early work, there were no themes.  An exhibition could present many ideas that didn’t necessarily connect or address one thing, and the works were all represented using different forms, formats, materials and aesthetics, all having meaning in their own right.  


How has the process changed?  Now the works in a solo exhibition tend to have a theme or subject.  However, the works are still produced using different forms, formats, materials, and aesthetics like before.  I never understood why I should have to make everything Match. Now I allow myself to make an unformed idea and go with my intuition—a downplayed human attribute, I think, in the conceptual world.


 


LM: When you say “Match” with a capital “M,” do you mean you resist a consistent aesthetic, rather than relying on a singular recurrent process or material across your entire body of work? It’s interesting that the materials and inspirational sources for your work have remained consistent over the years, but consistent perhaps only in their diversity. From the very beginning, your work took on the look that it needed according to the idea, as you’ve stated. How is that consistency key to your thinking and practice? Do you feel that you have a recognisable aesthetic, or a recognisable set of conceptual concerns, or is painting yourself in such a corner uninteresting to you? Apologies for the pun.


AL:   I never set out to resist a singular style.  The materials, the images, and the objects I used had their own meaning, and conveyed what I wanted to say.  One way worked better for one idea but would not be sufficient for the next. The words look or style seem to me to be about the surface of a thing. I am not interested in work that is primarily retinal.


LM:  Growing up in small-town Connecticut, as a youth you were far removed from the social movements of the late 1960s and ’70s. We’ve talked a lot about how your upbringing was rather beset by the classic aesthetics and conservative ethos of the ’40s and ’50s, and how black and white films that aired on television made up a good part of your early cultural education. For your exhibition at the MFA, you created works about the influential films you felt an affinity for as a child. Each work draws an image or object from a specific film: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), or Fritz Lang’s M (1931). What drew you to each of these films? What might they all have in common? 


Annette Lemieux: Mise en Scène | Atlántica

Mise en Scène, The Watchers, 2017.
Installation at the MFA, Boston

AL:   Perhaps what the films all have in common is that the characters reflected persons in my early life. With To Kill a Mocking Bird, the plot and characters were loosely based on Harper Lee’s observations of her own hometown experience through Scout’s eyes and ears.  I too watched and learned from teachers, neighbors, as well as from my family when I was very young and then unlearned the prejudice that was taught and observed—the acceptance or rejection of a person due to their race, religious belief, or economic status.


M, by Fritz Lang, is more difficult to say.  Perhaps it has something to do with the darkness and fear—the fear of something coming.


I was attracted to Fahrenheit 451 first for its campiness, and then for its speculative fiction—which seemed believable at the time and unfortunately came true—being watched and controlled, book banning (burning), etc. It is so eerily reflective of the brainwashing of our media-saturated society today, and of our government officials. 


Annette Lemieux: Mise en Scène | Atlántica

Mise en Scène, Area of Refuge, 2017.
Installation at the MFA, Boston

LM:   To make the works on view at the MFA, you extracted key moments from the narratives of each film and zeroed in on certain objects that either seem vaguely familiar, or, if we are film aficionados, that we know well from the big screen. In the case of the three sculptures in the show, which I have come to call “readymades from film,” you make one-to-one transfers of objects from film into three-dimensional space. When encountered in the gallery, the objects are suddenly to scale not with the movie stars, but with us. Their physical yet spectral presence in the gallery reminds us that these things from the big screen were originally objects on another kind of set. They break down their respective mises en scène in film by appearing in the gallery, where they are twice removed (object to image, image to object). What remains of the mise en scène is the isolated art object itself—it’s the backdrop that won’t seamlessly fall away. Why did you decide to bring objects from film into gallery space? Why each of these objects in particular?


AL:  When looking at the films, the images and the objects I chose from each film had a particular resonance for me.  I don’t know how else to explain it.  It is similar to when I collect objects that are boxed till they are needed.  The images and the objects are perhaps nouns ready when I need to complete a particular sentence, or idea. 


Annette Lemieux: Mise en Scène | Atlántica Annette Lemieux: Mise en Scène | Atlántica

Mise en Scène, Repeat, 2017.
Installation at the MFA, Boston

LM:  While each of these films embodies an aesthetic we can now call vintage, the problems they pose resonate ever more strongly in the current political moment. As we were working on this show together in August, the protests and counter-protests over a monument to the confederacy blew up in Charlottesville, Virginia. The events culminated when a young white nationalist plowed his Dodge sports car through a crowd of anti-racist protesters, injuring 19 and killing one. The rise of the resurgent right in the last year has polarised our communities, bringing us back in time through its retrograde value systems. For me, your exhibition reminds us that the past is never too far away, even when we try to keep it at bay. Mise en scène literally and figuratively reframes and overlays the Technicolors of today onto the black and white images of our collective memory. Did you make these works in part as a response to this political moment?


AL:   I began this exhibition with the idea of creating works from films.  At that time, I didn’t know what films I would choose.  I wasn’t thinking of our political landscape, or that I should find films that would somehow represent the present. But as I chose the films I chose, the works connected to a present political landscape that is not far from our past.


LM:  There is a history of responding to current political affairs in your work. In 1994, you made Censor (A-E), a portfolio of prints at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard, not long after the censoring of Mapplethorpe’s retrospective and the onset of the culture wars. Can you share how you responded to such treatment of another artist, in terms both of your decision to cancel your show at the Corcoran Gallery and of how you channeled that experience into your work?


Annette Lemieux: Mise en Scène | Atlántica

Mise en Scène, Elsie and Elsie, 2017.
Installation at the MFA, Boston

AL:  Censor came out of an earlier work created that same year entitled A Man in His Study, which was an enlarged contact sheet of 36 photographs shot from the film The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin.  Black horizontal bands, (radio waves?) were recorded obliterating the images.  I saw these horizontal bands as visual censors.  At that time, the Corcoran Gallery cancelled the Mapplethorpe exhibition, NEA grants for individual artists were being threatened and finally killed, and Senator Helms was in the news ripping up a copy of Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ.  I guess at that moment I had had just about enough.


LM:   Perhaps beginning with Hollywood films, human emotion and connection become increasingly displaced from everyday social life and onto a screen, a subject broached directly in Ray Bradbury’s novel-turned-film, Fahrenheit 451. How do you feel about the fact that today we connect better with each other in social media feeds than on the streets of our neighborhoods? Is there a part of you that longs for some of the ways of life past? How is that felt in the works in this exhibition? 


AL:  We may connect or reconnect to more people due to what social media offers, but I would never say we connect better overall. At the same time, in the film To Kill a Mocking Bird, the persons in the small town of Monroe are not necessarily connecting better due to a lack of technology. Like minds connect… 


LM:  To put my question another way, in my opinion your works are a confrontation of the myth and longing to return to times when life was “less complicated,” when everything was “better,” and to that question we must ask, better for whom? The picturesque promises of small-town America so often failed men of colour and women of all colours. If some of these films are indeed about racism, we might also say they are about whiteness, and about the spectrum of discrimination that exists in all of us—even in the “good guys” and the victims. You bravely and necessarily take up whiteness as a subject, as well as the fear of difference that keeps society heading backward. How does a clear rejection of nostalgia appear in your work of the past, and how does it manifest in Mise en scène?


Annette Lemieux: Mise en Scène | Atlántica

Censor, 1994
Five photogravures with flat stencil roll
A – E
Edition of 10

AL:   Found images from World War I or World War II used in my past work do represent a fight against prejudice of a community due to their difference, their religious beliefs in particular. I have no longing to return to a place that was as miserable as the present. If one understands what the word nostalgia means, the word wouldn’t be tied to my work.  The images I have used do not represent pleasantries of the past; I see something quite different in them.  In Mise en scène, often the black and white images were for me a metaphor for a current negative situation that we experience in living colour. 


LM:   You are considered one of the most important artists of your generation working in New York in the 1980s and later in Boston. Your early oeuvre shaped conversation around idea-driven art in the wake of pop, minimalism, performance, and the feminist art movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Who are some of the artists that helped stir your thinking, or influence the directions that you have taken as an artist? 


AL:  The most influential artist would be Joseph Beuys, after seeing his exhibition at the Guggenheim in the late ’70s.  I was attracted to his use of unconventional materials, but more important was the content—the work being grounded in concepts of humanism, social philosophy and anthroposophy. Another is Philip Guston; I connect with his concern with existence.  


LM:  You’ve been teaching art at the university level for more than thirty years, most recently at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, where you teach in the Visual and Environmental Studies. When Trump won the election in November 2016, you asked the Whitney Museum to turn a work of yours on view upside-down as a gesture of protest. How has your work as a professor played a role in your process as an artist? How do you bring your students into the fold of your work?


Annette Lemieux: Mise en Scène | Atlántica

Left Right Left Right, 1995 (turned upside down)
Thirty photolithographs and thirty pine poles
Dimensions variable
Edition of 3

AL:   My work LEFT RIGHT LEFT RIGHT from 1995 was included in the exhibition Human Interest at the Whitney. The work consists of 30 placards mounted on sticks with images of raised fists in some sort of collective protest.


On the day the 45th won, we were all in mourning.  My students walked into the class in a dirge.  We didn’t have a traditional class that morning, instead we watched the news and Hillary’s concession speech.  While waiting for Hillary to appear, I told my students about my idea, and about my experiencing waking up at 4 AM to learn who was the 45th president.  My gut told me that my work in Human Interest didn’t seem to work anymore.  It made more sense to me if it would be turned upside down, as I felt defeated. They all gave me their thumbs up.  


LM:   What is your teaching philosophy and how does it align with your work as an artist? How have students’ approaches and attitudes to art and political engagement changed over the years?


AL:   I let them do what they want as long as it is “good.” Meaning that they take a rigorous approach to the making of the thing, as well as conceptually.  I am not looking for a particular theme, or style, or format, etc.  So I guess that approach to teaching reflects my own working process.  I have noticed in the last five years, less or more, my students have been more politically engaged.  


LM: In the current political moment, what do you think is the role of artists and culture at large? 


AL:  The role of artists is to make their work, whatever that is.  I don’t expect every artist to make work that is overtly political.  I personally need to make work that reflects my experience. 


Annette Lemieux: Mise en Scène | Atlántica

Left Right Left Right, 1995 (right side up)
Thirty photolithographs and thirty pine poles
Dimensions variable
Edition of 3