Annette Lemieux, Walking on Water Revisited, 2000, water-based ink on canvas, 10' 8“ x 25' x 5' 4”.

Annette Lemieux, Walking on Water Revisited, 2000, water-based ink on canvas, 10' 8“ x 25' x 5' 4”.

Annette Lemieux

Annette Lemieux, Walking on Water Revisited, 2000, water-based ink on canvas, 10' 8“ x 25' x 5' 4”.

A major midcareer survey, “The Strange Life of Objects: The Art of Annette Lemieux” showcases twenty-four works made between 1983 and the present. The Boston-based Lemieux got her start in New York in the early ’80s, during which time, as an assistant to David Salle, she aligned herself with the young generation of painters and Conceptual artists associated with Mary Boone Gallery and Metro Pictures. Photographically scavenged images and clean-cut geometric forms are common to Lemieux’s nostalgic and often ironic aesthetic. Her chosen materials—ranging from latex on canvas to roofing tiles, from ink on aluminum to military helmets and cement—serve to evoke the collective memories of such disastrous past events as the Holocaust and the Vietnam War, as well as more recent traumas such as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the attacks of 9/11.

As demonstrated by Manna, 1983, which features a central black geometric letter M painted (sans serif) on a clean white ground, Lemieux’s work has formal ties to the language-based Conceptual art of Joseph Kosuth, Sarah Charlesworth, and Tim Rollins and K.O.S. However, above and below this central symbol, in smaller script, Lemieux inscribed MANNA—the food that was miraculously sent from God to feed the Israelites during their travels in the desert with Moses. Here the word manna seems more diaristic than analytic—her invocation of the Bible perhaps harkening back to her childhood experiences in Catholic grammar school.

If with Manna Lemieux used text both narratively as language, and graphically as image, she employed the same strategy, only with more refinement, in Hell Text, 1991, a poetic and heartrending meditation on the terrors experienced by Holocaust victims. Imprinting bloodred cotton with heated, specially designed brass letters, Lemieux united lines from various isolated, anguished accounts of 1938’s Kristallnacht onto a common surface. In effect, voices spouting tormented phrases such as “we began to die” and “some went insane” are individually represented while articulating the collective experience of the Holocaust in a single expression of theological despair.

In spite of such grave empathetic engagement, with Lemieux, there are also moments of levity. Take her deadpan Moveable Obstacle #1, 1995, a portable barrier set on caster wheels and constructed with faux bricks made from wood, glue, roofing tiles, acrylic paint, and pumice gel meant to suggest creative blocks and breakthroughs. This slate-gray wall is also a cleverly disguised self-portrait: Measuring 64 by 64 by 93⁄8 inches, it precisely reflects Lemieux’s height, depth, and width with arms extended. Elsewhere, Reclining Snowman, 2001, is a playful take on Minimalist formal conventions, as it features three white Hydrocal spheres of increasing scales unceremoniously arranged on a low Formica platform to evoke the subject of their title. Nomad, 1988, offers yet another example: After dipping her feet in black latex paint, Lemieux paced barefoot around an unprimed canvas the size of her studio floor. The resultant foot patterns, which index the pressure and paths of her mental and physical meanderings, serve as an existential portrait of anxiety. Lemieux more fully employs herself as a subject in the mural-size water-based ink–on-canvas print Walking on Water Revisited, 2000. Seemingly engaged in a miraculous deed, she appears photographed from behind, walking on the Charles River, invoking both a well-known New Testament miracle and the secular phrase used to refer to the performance of tasks that defy personal limitations. It is a double entendre that aptly symbolizes Lemieux’s eccentric and enigmatic wit, meticulous craftsmanship, and ability to attribute unconventional implications.

Francine Koslow Miller