TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT December 1986

REMEMBRANCE OF OBJECTS PAST

A PAPER ROLL, TAKEN FROM the kind of player piano that was popular in the years around the turn of the century unfurls from the platen of a vintage manual typewriter and hangs up the wall. The letters on the typewriter keys have been replaced with musical notations—crotchets, quavers. The title of this 1985 assemblage by Annette Lemieux is Oh Promise Me, the name of an old religious love ballad whose melody has been coded into holes punched into the piano roll. Alongside them are printed the words of the song. Reading this lyric, the viewer follows the text up the wall, and falls into an attitude of supplication, eyes cast toward heaven.

Music, or at least the sensation of sound, is almost always suggested somehow in Lemieux’s art; made aware of sound yet hearing nothing, one becomes aware of the silence around her objects. Abandoned by the tide of technological progress, the obsolete typewriter and the archaic scroll each play a different tune. They seem suspended, deprived of the hum of their use, relieved of their usual function and thus turned into object. Yet the fact of their placement together, and their elevation to a new rank of visibility by inclusion in the sphere of art rather than of use, seem only provisional, as if at any moment they could disappear back into their own times, when they were “useful.”

Lemieux’s work is a diverse combination of objects, paintings, photographs, and words. Their union in art seems almost unexceptional, even half expected. The “rightness” of the combinations they compose doesn’t seem the product of the psychological sparks of misrecognition found in Surrealism; these are not the rhyming couplets of dissonance found in the “poem objects” of Andre Breton, or in similar works by Man Ray Nor are they a surrealist exploration of the unconscious. Lemieux’s juxtapositions stir from conscious, albeit hazy memories, which live a half-life on the fringe of awareness.

In Lemieux’s art, the space of history and personal memory widens into a zone of cultural amnesia. The everyday mass-produced objects that inhabit her work seem turned off from the world of time, function, and operation, their usual routines forgotten. But Lemieux’s work is not about the retreat of nostalgic yearning; rather, it confronts the loss induced by a culture whose primary concern is with newness. A bland-looking generic clock, inscribed with the rhyming couplet “I think at last/of old days past:’ is perhaps the closest the artist comes to reflecting openly on the sense of absence and suspension in time that underlies all her work. The clock is functioning, but like the sight of a familiar personal object left behind at the scene of a car crash or a violent crime, the monotonous orbit of the hands, moving contextless and unceasingly, elicits an apprehension in the viewer, pulling at memories of what must once have been and now no longer is.

In addition to its disjunct associations with Surrealism, Lemieux’s work also suggests a complex, ambiguous relationship with various emblems of the peak of formalism in the history of abstract art. Showing One’s Colors, 1986, in which the glass of three old-fashioned oval frames has been painted in oil, from the inside, in red, yellow, and blue respectively, reflects on the Modernist preoccupation with both reduction and novelty in art. And as the title suggests, the work also embodies the ancient warlike ritual of flying the flag to identify one’s forces to friends and foes. We silently salute the old memories that the frames continue to evoke in the face of newer myths. Similarly Vacancy, 1986, in which another oval frame—this one gilt, and its glass clear and empty—hangs like a wreath next to a brown-painted canvas on which is emblazoned a red star, evokes vague memories of war victims, and of the flowers sometimes placed alongside the works of recently deceased artists in museums, for example London’s Tate Gallery. A suggestion of ’60s color-field work tinges Painting Ground, Painting Field, 1986; the glass of two more oval frames, the “ground” and “field” of painting, is painted respectively brown and green. Lemieux calls up the associative.the emblematic,even the decorative impact of color. The effect is pronounced in Party Hats, 1986, a number of German helmets from World War II painted with different-sized circular dots in a variety of pastel colors. These objects embody Lemieux’s strangely skewed vision; they demand an associative leap to a dimension of the sinister.

Whether it comprises images, objects, or styles of painting, Lemieux’s work is about forms of obsolescence. Rescued from the oblivion of market and cultural turnover by their removal from the finality of function, her pieces exist as living fragments of a lost world that has been cast aside in the forgetful flow of technological history. Lemieux—and this is true of other artists whose work touches on the invisibility created by electronic technology—has abandoned the sense of objecthood associated with the painting of the ’50s and ’60s. When Jasper Johns put words or things into paintings, his objects still retained an enigmatic but solid identity, even if a transformed one. But comparable combinations by Lemieux seem transparent and obscure, despite their familiar identity. Her revivals of mnemonic forms, rather than transforming the object’s identity, seem instead like a reflection on the world of commodities created in a closing phase of the industrial era. Up until the ’60s, industry still defined itself through the production of objects. And art focused attention on the perception of the object—its presence, its transformation, its dematerialisation—leading to the ’70s focus on the frameworks around art. Lemieux’s ’80s vantage ,point, however, is impelled by the layered/integrated world of transparent/invisible systems, in which material is dissolved in a seamless organization of functions and input. Where the machine-age device presents its function openly, function disappears altogether with the electronic gadget, which only presents the electronic code. The word processor, the electric clock, and the microwave oven, for example, flatten, deobjectify, and miniaturize the commodity make it disappear behind the screen of electronic coding.

Lemieux’s art is akin to the screen of electronic codification, absorbing the object while giving it the aura of memory. But this sense of memory initiated by her work involves an escape from the technological history of functions and codes—a paradoxical forgetfulness. Although the work confronts images, objects, and painting styles predicated by the code of history, it is not a recollection of temps perdus; rather, in Maurice Blanchot’s terms, it is a surrender to the fascination of “time’s absence?”

The time of time’s absence has no present, no presence. This “no present” does not, however, refer hack to a past. Olden days had the dignity and the active force of now. Memory still bears witness to this active force. It frees me from what otherwise would recall me; it frees me by giving me the means of calling freely upon the past, of ordering it according to my present intention. Memory is freedom of the past. But what has no present will not accept the present of a memory either. Memory says of the event:it once was and now it will never be again. The irremediable character of what has no present, of what is not even there as having once been there, says: it never happened, never for a first time, and yet it starts over, again, again, infinitely. It is without end, without beginning. It is without a future.1

Each of Lemieux’s works is like an episode from a half-remembered dream, free to escape the constraints of the past, the future, and “the end?” Her found photographs are a recollection of the age of the mechanical commodity and of the mass culture that proclaimed itself in terms of quantity; the age when supermarkets favored tin mountains, and every social event was celebrated with the group photograph. Militia, 1986, sets a number of reproductions of three group photographs into a likeness of the American flag. The picture also recalls the images produced by Chinese stadium crowds during the Cultural Revolution, for example, or the more recent “baseball wave” made in stadiums in this country by blocks of people alternately standing up and sitting down, arms aloft, to produce the effect of a moving human wall of water. Yet an image of a unified crowd at this particular point in the 20th century is at least metaphorically threatening, with its implications of the engulfment or suffocation of the individual, or worse. In Militia, the image of the stars and stripes becomes a menacing image of the macrocosm.

Lemieux seems particularly fascinated by photographs from the ’40s and ’50s, but these images preceding her personal history offer no nostalgic impulse, no reassuring “good old days:’ The images Lemieux chooses are disquieting. menacing, either in themselves or through the way she juxtaposes them, with each other or with text. She is interested in mythic aspects—Walking on Water, 1985, for example, is a sepia photograph of a middle-aged water-skier supporting on his shoulders two young girls, presumably his daughters, whose outstretched arms produce a strange and unintended image of the Crucifixion. The text. “walking on water’,’ emphasizes this leap of Christian association, and also identifies this precarious feat for the camera with the miraculous. The image becomes a reflection of faith in the father, but it is upon the daughters that our eyes land as they subject themselves to this task of mythic trust. He smiles, they concentrate grimly The caption just shifts the slight tentativeness of their poses into a psychological reflection of father/daughter relationships. The biblical phrase “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” springs to mind, recreating the climactic moment of the Christian Passion in the holiday snapshot.

It is when Lemieux appears most capricious and idiosyncratic that she touches on the profoundest icons and objects in our secular culture, in which faith in religion has been replaced by a faith in the image. The miracle of walking on water in the contrived moment of photographic “truth” becomes, in Lemieux’s work, like the waking recollection of that “powerful dream, the dream of not being like anything, of being nothing created,” to quote Robert Harbison, who sees this fantasy concealed in all technological objects.2 Like an exorcist, but in a game of playful recognition, Lemieux pursues the miraculous in the mundanity of 20th-century experience.

Rosetta Brooks is a writer who lives in New York. and is the editor of ZG magazine.

—————————

NOTES

1. Maurice Blanchot, “The Essential Solitude.” The Space of Literature, trans Anne Smock, Lincoln/London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, p. 30.

2. Robert Harbison, “Nightmares of Iron and Glass,” Eccentric Spaces, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1977, p 38.