New York

Annette Lemieux

Kasmin | 293 Tenth Avenue

Annette Lemieux’s equivocal place among those contemporary artists drawn to reminiscence—let’s call them “nostalgics”—is far from commensurate with her prominence in what might be termed Feminist Conceptualism. This obliquity owes something to the fact that she works “off scene,” in Boston (despite her continuing New York presence in galleries of note), and also to her attraction to cryptic, elusive themes. Lemieux’s political sarcasm is masked by sweetness and reductivist abstraction, and her infinite links of insinuation are a deterrent to facile acceptance, unwanted to begin with. Her references at times seem so teasing and premeditatedly capricious as to defy comprehension. But the artist’s commitment to the bare bones of Minimalism’s rectangle, circle, and grid is rarely placed in jeopardy.

The present circumstances are no exception. “The Last Suppa,” as the recent exhibition was discomfitingly titled, is trash talk, a crackerbarrel pronunciation of “the last supper.” Table for One (all works cited, 2010), a red-and-white-checked tablecloth tondo in the shape of the host, exemplified her formal concerns while also, granting the larger Christological setting of the show as a whole, serving as a reference to the Eucharist, the sacrament inaugurated at that portentous meal.

In her past work, Lemieux has proved herself as partial to the Great Depression myths perpetuated in the day’s radio broadcasts and black-and-white movies as she is horrified by the postwar depredations of the New England farm and mill town as they drift off into bedroom suburbs. Born in Virginia but raised in dying Torrington—hence embittered working class and lapsed Roman Catholic—she is one acutely class-conscious Connecticut Girl. (I once described her as Agnes Martin with an ax to grind.) The metanarrative of her oeuvre is the plucky, independent woman: the single mom surviving on minimum wage, welfare, or alimony and still yearning (perhaps) for her big lug, either divorced or gone off to a Roy Lichtenstein world of macho warfare—to Korea-Vietnam-Kuwait-Iraq-Afghanistan-“On Terror” conflicts colorized by the cinematic duplicity and gung-ho of the Greatest Generation. In the end, Mom’s guy is, of course, her daughter’s dad, MIA. All this and more is implicit or explicit in the snapshots and period objects incorporated into Lemieux’s work, which, when not expressed as painting incorporating photography, is often met as assemblage.

In contrast to these earlier soapy dramas, “The Last Suppa” was a spare installation of but seven works invoking halcyon state fair days recalled, as it were, through a religious prism. A gilt straw hat, for example, becomes Halo, arguably reflecting a yearning for a lost, purer, rural world—albeit one filtered through the appropriation of the images of advertising. Elsie, of all seemingly absurd creatures, is awarded the plum role, as golden calf or sacrificial bovine—in Holy Cow! Andy Warhol can be sensed—not only his Byzantine taste for gold and silver but also, more explicitly, his Cow Wallpaper, 1966. To be sure, the show’s roots run far deeper, back to Theo van Doesburg’s Composition VIII (The Cow), ca. 1918. That famous de Stijl yellow square symbolizing sun, butter, cream, and milk provides a perfect historicist backdrop for today’s bright, televised duplicities—the fetching, bonneted logos of partially hydrogenated virtual food.

In several pieces, Lemieux makes use of a delightful smiling girl found in a livestock catalogue of the 1950s. She appears in various incarnations, most effectively in 25 Hail Marys, where she invokes the charming and the penitential at one go. Warhol’s astral divas—Marilyn, Liz, and Jackie—likewise memorialized as gridded screens, are transformed in this reredos, Lemieux’s parochial confessional.

Perhaps the most ambitious piece in the show, however, was Twelve, a mirroring photo on wood (two panels, with the right reflecting the left) of a group of young calves caught behind a fence of loose wire squares, their ears numbered 0001–0012, heifers marked for ownership and/or slaughter and, in the context here, as referent to the apostles. Underlying such works is the status of the cow: symbol of maternal nurture yet also, in our green moment, a menace—the source of excessive manure, that problematic effluvium, part fertilizer and part poison for our ponds, rivers, and aquifers.

Such troubled readings of “The Last Suppa” could be pondered as one sat upon a photographically rendered bale of hay (that also served double duty as altar) situated midgallery. Saint Andy’s ghost still hovers in the fairground-become-shopping-mall Brillo Box.

Robert Pincus-Witten