New York

Annette Messager, Bras/Voitures (Arm, Cars), 2009, mixed media, 97 5/8 x 78 3/4 x 19 5/8".

Annette Messager, Bras/Voitures (Arm, Cars), 2009, mixed media, 97 5/8 x 78 3/4 x 19 5/8".

Annette Messager

Annette Messager, Bras/Voitures (Arm, Cars), 2009, mixed media, 97 5/8 x 78 3/4 x 19 5/8".

In interviews, Annette Messager has spoken of her admiration for Roland Barthes and, in particular, for his Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, 1977). It makes sense that the artist, perhaps best known for her portrayals of literal and figurative dismemberment, would be attracted to this volume. An account of things come undone (a love affair, a life, the body, discourse itself) written, appropriately enough, in parts (some that feel like shards), Barthes’s book not only echoes formal and conceptual elements of Messager’s forty-year career but interestingly was itself composed when she was making some of her earliest definitive work.

In addition to these similarities, Barthes and Messager share a concern with certain stakes of representation, or, put somewhat differently, what Barthes calls the “image-repertoire.” In love, he argues, one is delivered to images; outside of love, one is left “exiled,” alienated from them—bereft, that is to say, of a certain kind of picture. We know what this means, even if it at first seems obtuse: When we are in love, we recall with pleasure and precision the most minute, inconsequential details of the beloved (tip of the nose, back of the neck, freckle on the skin). In mourning, however, such images begin to retreat, becoming ever more difficult to locate. In such a state, one might argue, we are delivered into a kind of abstraction.

But how do Messager’s bits and parts fit within such a frame? Over the years, her works have been more often described as violent and dark than amorous and doting. (Barthes’s model of love, too, it must be said, is unexpectedly brutal at its core.) And the “representations” she produces are precarious at best. Yet for viewers who have watched Messager’s production over the years, it’s very clear that while destabilizing holistic tableaux, she nonetheless continues to produce scenarios firmly engaged with the “image-repertoire”; the works are unexpectedly amorous, refusing abstraction even while courting it.

In her solo show for Marian Goodman Gallery this summer, Messager presented a series of drawings and a pair of installations. The first, an arrangement of individual works collectively titled Et range ta chambre (And Clean Up Your Room), 2007–2009, was a dark, engorged paean to childhood and its sprawl. Lumpy black pendulums: schematic, cipherlike figures; architectural elements; and strings of campaign buttons bearing not political messages but peculiar, archetypal drawings combined to produce a kind of ur-theater. Here, one imagined the formation of a young person occurring at a crossroads where the unconscious meets capitalism. Items instantly legible from commercial spheres (a child-size black plastic Croc, chunky Lego blocks) snuggled against handmade objects far less immediately recognizable (renderings, perhaps, of ideas and impulses), and the tension between them felt at once barbaric and banal. A strange medley of melancholic loss of childhood innocence and blissful polymorphous perversion, Et range ta chambre stages a duel between ego and id. Something similar happens in Continents Noirs (Black Continents), 2010–12, a grouping of large black islands hung overhead in an otherwise empty gallery. Simultaneously mapping a kind of phantasmic psychogeography and purveying an aesthetic of apocalypse (and ostensibly inspired by Gulliver’s Travels), the work operates to both mimic today’s culture (one that produces trauma as its own hyper-spectacle) and unveil something of its logic (revealing the way we cling to fragments, rendering them lifelines to meaning). Finally, in a small gallery devoted to drawings, Messager presented eight compositions, each titled Chance, 2011–12. In these, the word acts as both harbinger of a future and negation of what it foretells. In various states of disassembly, CHANCE, whether rendered in ink or crepey string, materially dissolves, unravels, or slips away—and in nearly every iteration, it took a human form or two, still somewhat discernible, with it.

Johanna Burton