New York

Annette Lemieux

New Museum

The subject of memory has been central to Annette Lemieux’s investigations. Her recent exhibition, called “The Appearance of Sound,” consisted of six paintings which use memory as a mechanism to mediate between visual and auditory communication. Lemieux avoids the tired formalist activity of comparing, differentiating, or translating these distinct sensory modes. Instead, she focuses on the associative power of memory to conjure and make concrete the otherwise ethereal and temporal sensation of sound. All six paintings employ nostalgic imagery, which generates familiar associations. Each work comprises a photograph (generally from the ’30s or ’40s) which has been enlarged and transferred to canvas. This surface serves as the background upon which the artist effects a significant transformation.

In Truth, 1989, the central photograph encodes the saying “Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil”; a hand covers a microphone, another a camera lens, and a man covers his mouth. Stenciled across the image is a Russian proverb written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Presuming that most American viewers cannot read the text, the message is silent, as are the recording apparatuses. The origin of the letters, however, is recognizable and laden with connotations. Their red color and placement across the image’s surface conjure a 40-year history of Cold War politics, Soviet censorship, and the oppressive silencing of personal freedom. (The painting was made prior to this past summer’s events in the Eastern bloc). The piece, however, is less a critique of Soviet oppression than a general observation regarding control over the media.

Decline, 1989, has a similar operational device, but one dependent upon memory’s ability to recall sound. An image of a waterfall extends into the viewer’s space. From the base of the canvas, a blue carpet runs like a river into the room. One associates the image with the loud noise of rushing water, but the actual piece is silent. Lemieux has constructed a visualization to evoke sound with an object used to dampen sound. The blue carpet signifies both water and silence. In Silencing Sound, 1989, the viewer’s associations are so strong that they overpower the composition. Here, she has enlarged and transferred to canvas a photographic image of the atomic mushroom cloud looming over Nagasaki. Old photographs are affixed to the canvas, face down; they punctuate the surface in a loose grid of white rectangles. The images have been silenced; they have been turned away from sight and seem to have been blinded by the deafening light of the explosion. Lemieux suggests the power of the atomic blast through neutralizing the photographs.

Sound, like memory, is both ethereal and temporal; it appears as quickly as it dissipates. Lemieux’s composites preserve these fleeting perceptions. The associations her works conjure evoke fixed moments of sensory experience. Lemieux induces a meta-psychological experience in the viewer, recalling Freud’s understanding of the unconscious: “Thought proceeds in systems so far remote from the original perceptual residues that they have no longer returned anything of the qualities of those residues, and, in order to become conscious, need to be reinforced by new qualities.”

Kirby Gookin