Los Angeles

Annette Messager

For years I’ve pored over magazine reproductions of Annette Messager’s pieces, deeply intrigued, sighing with longing to see the real thing(s). Messager has not shown much in the U.S. and only twice before on the West Coast. This first major American exhibition of her work, co-organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and MoMA in New York, where it opens this month, was long overdue.

Describing Messager’s work as poetic, mysterious, eerie, dark, smart, playful seems woefully pale. I suppose this is the critic’s most dreaded disease—admiration fever. If you love the work, you choke. If you hate it, you tend to foam at the mouth, wetting your shirtfront. How to put into words the way Messager’s work manages to be weirdly elegant yet scruffy, and as defiantly female as the Bride of Frankenstein fresh from the beauty parlor? Messager’s cheerfully morbid oeuvre looks like it was made by a precocious, hyper child with obsessional tendencies, an unfettered imagination, and a taste for dressing up dead animals and scrawling on walls.

This restrospective was organized chronologically, comprising work from the ’70s to the present. Although not by any means an exhaustive representation, the majority of Messager’s modes of operation were in evidence. These include idiosyncratic personal scrapbooks; configurations of framed photographs, frequently dangling from strings, which might be painted or drawn on or otherwise altered; pieces involving text and/or needlework; and installations using clothing, fabrics and/or stuffed and taxidermied animals.

Les Tortures volontaires (Voluntary tortures, 1972) is composed of 86 black and white photos of women undergoing rigorous beauty treatments—masks, baths, rubs, wraps, even plastic surgery—that involve goofy get-ups or medieval-looking devices. The piece, which looks frightening, curious and amusing, was placed at the beginning of the show. It foregrounds Messager’s interest in ritual, victimology, fragmented bodies, “torture,” beauty, and cuteness—concerns that reverberated throughout this exhibition. With their impaled plush toys and taxidermied animals, Les Piques (The pikes, 1991–93) and Anonymes (Nameless ones, 1993) looked like a mixture of some child’s playroom, a museum about the Inquisition, and something amazing and strange discovered in a demented granny’s attic after her death. There is a profuseness and painstakingness to this work, as well as an abandon. L’Histoire des robes (The story of dresses, 1990–91) involves dresses and other keepsakes enclosed in thin, flat boxes like glass-topped coffins. Les Enfants aux yeux rayés (Children with their eyes scratched out, 1971–72), is a notebook of sweet, conventional-looking baby photos that appear to have been the victims of a jealous sibling wielding a ballpoint pen. Le Repos des pensionnaires (Boarders at rest, 1971–72) is a vitrine full of taxidermied sparrows, each wearing a knitted pastel sweater, muffler, or shawl. Looking at these tiny creatures thus adorned, their pathetic clawed feet sticking out stiffly, fills one with alternating waves of fascination, confusion, and revulsion, and tends to leave one speechless. “What I liked about the show was that it was so authentically coo-coo,” said a friend. With that high praise I rest my case.

Amy Gerstler