New York

Annette Messager

I imagine that winning a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale would be a pretty hard act to follow. This was the predicament Annette Messager must have found herself in, contemplating her first solo show in Marian Goodman’s New York space not too long after the success of her Pinocchio-themed “Casino” pavilion in 2005. In response to potentially stultifying validation, she seems to have decided that a certain caution might be warranted. While “Mettre aux Mondes” (“To Bring into the Worlds”) is still marked by Messager’s flights of surreal, often violent, fancy, it is also downright circumspect. The panoply of objects in this exhibition oscillates between the diminutive and the gargantuan, and her expressions slide between outrage and ecstasy, sentimentality and camp, but the sum effect is not neutrality so much as irresolution.

Or such was the premise of Messager’s commentary on creative genesis. Perhaps inevitably if regrettably tied to childbirth, the ever-mutable buxom, globular figures in the namesake piece, To Bring into the Worlds, 2006, are veritably pregnant with possibility. Cartoonlike figures gambol across the group of eight India ink drawings, rolling, dancing, floating, kicking up their heels, splaying their legs, fondling themselves, conversing on a bolster, transforming into a frog, a spider, a snarling vagina dentata, an intestine, a corporate logo, and a paperweight. The potential for perversion seems endless.

The same could be said of the related objects, domesticated little balls of terra-cotta painted to look like mini-earths. In the installation Grand filet: monde (Large Net: World), 2005–2006, they are variously inserted into an unraveling sock and trapped in one of Messager’s ubiquitous black nets. (Another net spelled out the word SECRET across the opposite wall.) One little orb off to the side pokes its makeshift head out from under a conical party hat, as another clogs a Slinky; others are also under attack by little toylike tank sculptures armed with colored pencils.

In On Longing (1993), Susan Stewart suggests that the theatricality of miniatures proposes an analogical world within a world: “That the world of things can open itself to reveal a secret life—indeed, to reveal a set of actions and hence a narrativity and history outside the given field of perception—is a constant daydream that the miniature presents. This is the daydream of the microscope: the daydream of life inside life, of significance multiplied infinitely within significance.” This is precisely Messager’s terrain, only so is its inverse. Like a foray to Lilliput and to Brobdingnag, a walk to or from the windowless main gallery effects a radical disorientation of scale.

The gigantism of Gonflés, dégonflés (Inflating, Deflating), 2005–2006, exaggerates disembodiment to the point of spectacular, albeit self-conscious, absurdity. Its thirty delicately painted parachute fabric elements represent wildly disproportionate bodily fragments intermingling—here a brain, there a phallus, or a stomach or an outstretched hand. Powered by computerized motors and air compressors, Messager’s “landscape of breath” revs up, puffs up, and audibly expires; and it does this all over and over again. In Stewart’s terms, these organisms enact a partial landscape that confirms a world without a world, one that exceeds contextualization. Still, the most ringing endorsement of Messager’s show might be a dismissal, rooted in the work’s familiarity, that I overheard in the gallery: “I don’t know about the constant up and down. It’s too much like how I feel every day.”

Suzanne Hudson