New York

Annette Lemieux

Josh Baer Gallery

Rallying cries that evoke simple, old-fashioned values are predictably seductive: inconveniently, however, expedient truths usually prove inadequate to real circumstances. Though Annette Lemieux’s romance with homegrown Americana has been hailed as a brave antidote to the claustrophobic ironies that inform much contemporary work, her misty-eyed appeals to such concepts as family, country, and self-reliance seem informed more by a home-as-fort-style nationalism than by a viable response to dehumanizing post-industrial social conditions. In Lemieux’s hands, Grandma’s musty steamer trunk proves a Pandora’s box of reactionary sentiment.

Lemieux’s apologists argue that her affection for hokey Americana must be understood as a moment within a more complex investigation of this lore. Several pieces do afford at least a modicum of perspective on the apple-pie values they evoke. The footprint paintings, Pacing and Nomad, both works 1988, provide an oblique perspective on Abstract Expressionist subjectivity (via Richard Long) as manifested in a physical relationship to the painting process. M.L. King, 1988, presents an inspirational passage from one of the leader’s speeches, affirming the individual will in the face of dehumanizing technology. Typed in the shape of a schematized image of a man, the words suggestively trigger an unlikely analogy between the motivations informing civil-rights advocacy and romantic questing. By and large, however, Lemieux offers little more than sugar-coated versions of the mythologies she addresses. In Where Am I, 1988, a list of brain-straining interrogatives—“Where am I,“ ”Where are you,“ ”Why are you,“ ”Why am I," etc.—evidences Lemieux’s attachment to a debased, romantic version of the artist’s predicament.

The substantial market appeal of this work can be explained partly by the fact that it is perfectly tailored to supply a kind of conceptual art for those who are not conceptually inclined. The techniques and strategies associated with the short history of idea art are everywhere in evidence, but they are martialed to such didactic purpose that the designation “idea” rather valorizes the results. Here Below, 1989, which features some pages from a yellowed score of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, painted over in the manner of Clyfford Still, seamlessly allies heavy-handedness and vacuity. Life, 1989, a framed photo of the single word "LIFE”—a kind of evangelical gesture of affirmation presumably calculated to startle us out of our world-weary complacency—is about as convincing as a smiley-face button. The most fitting contemporary analogue for Lemieux’s project comes not from art or literature but from Broadway—the box-office record-breaker Les Misérables, which boasts the same noxious mixture of pretense and sentimentality, and which produces the same sinking feeling where the uplifting is being proclaimed.

Jack Bankowsky