On Second Thought

May 2, 2013

The quirky beauty of Annette Lemieux’s work gets you looking. Her deep exploration of the universal human tendency toward ambivalence grabs your attention and doesn’t let go.

Text by Louis Postel

The quirky beauty of Annette Lemieux’s work gets you looking. Her deep exploration of the universal human tendency toward ambivalence grabs your attention and doesn’t let go.

Let us begin our studio visit with something light to think about—like the human condition. What exactly is that condition? Artists often say the human condition can be defined as a state of constant ambivalence. Humans are blessed (and cursed) by being able to feel at least two ways about the very same thing, often at the very same time.

Under normal circumstances, we can live with being of two minds. But when the indecision breaks into opposing camps, there is pain. Annette Lemieux entices us to look at that pain by creating seductively beautiful work that, on closer inspection, contains elements of ambivalence, discomfort, even horror.

A Harvard instructor for many years, Lemieux is one of a handful of New England artists collected by museums around the world, including Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Modern and Met in New York, as well as that colossus of art and design, The Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Her studio in Allston, Massachusetts, holds a recent sculpture called Back to the Garden, a round, table-like object covered in what looks like turf grass. Miniature lead farm animals and men Lemieux collected on eBay wind their way through a circular labyrinth. “Pretty cute, are they not?” says Lemieux. Look closely, though, and it’s clear that there is more going on than a cute array of farm figurines. The excruciating ambivalence of the piece becomes apparent. The progress of the little figures will ultimately be impeded by a scaled-down model of a dead tree smack in the center of the work. A butcher eyes three pigs. A goose tries to save her chicks from an attacking dog; a farmer shovels manure behind a horse; a cat and a pig engage in a deep conversation; two men face off to fight. While there is a beauty to these vignettes, there is also a horror.

Another sculpture, called The Messenger, consists of a pair of heavy paratrooper boots with turkey-feather wings attached to the back in the style of the Greek messenger god Hermes; only Hermes wore winged slippers, not military boots. The Museo Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence, Italy, has arranged to pick it up for a special exhibition. “I hope to get some nice shoes out of the deal,” Lemieux says.

A catalogue opened on a table shows a photo of Lemieux’s Hell on Wheels, a piece she created in the early 1990s that depicts a battalion of beetle-like helmets, fixed with wheels, on the march. Cute—and ominous; it was a prescient response to the first Iraq war.

Lemieux knew she would be an artist at an early age. “My mother worked in a five and dime. On her days off she took me antiquing, which was her passion. I became hooked on the beauty of objects. Fifty years ago in kindergarten, we were making shadow boxes and I had a kind of aha moment. I put a brown rock in the middle and a goldfish head to the left and a tail to the right. It was 3-D. I was just amazed!”

Lemieux attended the Hartford Art School, studying under post-modern master David Salle. Salle then hired her to work in his New York studio. Like thousands of other recent art school grads, Lemieux gravitated to the hopping East Village art scene of the early 1980s. Her paintings were getting larger and larger, but popular and critical success eluded her.

Then, in 1984, Lemieux’s life screeched to a halt. A truck ran her down as she stood outside the Flatiron building. A long recuperation followed a stay in the hospital. In hindsight, she acknowledges a lingering ambivalence about the split seconds of that accident. Feeling physically broken was one thing; feeling a new inspiration coming on was another. Lemieux started back to work, but in ways she could physically manage: small sculptures, prints, found objects. Her first show in New York after the accident was something of an international hit. “It really had no theme, no branding, as they call it today. In fact, people thought it was a group show, which it wasn’t,” she says.

If one aspect of the human condition is a sense of frailty, another is stubborn resilience. There are at least two ways we can feel toward the same thing. We experience ambivalence and occasionally painful inner division day and night, even doing something as simple as crossing a busy street. (Go, be brave! Stop, be careful!)

Through her art, Lemieux works out this predicament in beautiful ways. •

EDITOR’S NOTE Annette Lemieux is represented by the Barbara Krakow Gallery, Boston, (617) 262-4490, barbarakrakowgallery.com.