Annette Lemieux first came to the attention of the art world in New York in the 1980s, where she rocketed to fame.
Lemieux, Boston-based for decades, has received the MFA’s 2017 Maud Morgan Prize, a biennial award honoring a Massachusetts woman artist who has made significant contributions to the contemporary arts landscape.
An exhibition dedicated to work she created referencing various films has just opened at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Lemieux, born in 1957, loved movies, and the pieces in this exhibition reflect her connection to four films—Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” and Fritz Lang’s “M.”
Consistent with her work of the previous decades, Lemieux’s exhibition space is spare, with only a minimal number of objects to catch the viewer’s eye. The overall theme of the show is censorship and societal control, which is reflected in the manner in which the pieces are presented.
Curator of the exhibition is Liz Munsell, Lorraine and Alan Bressler Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art and Special Initiatives.
“Lemieux teaches at Harvard, has exhibited around the world, and has works in the collections of most major museums in the US,” Munsell says, “yet this is the first time that she is really being acknowledged to this degree in her hometown.”
The first object that greets viewers is a pylon that calls to mind the barriers that the fireman in “Fahrenheit 451,” based on Ray Bradbury’s novel, put out when they were going to set fire to books.
(451 degrees is the temperature at which paper used in books will burn.)
Next you see a montage of antennas on the roofs of homes that were used in the film, presented in both black and white and color. In one sense, antennae are all about receiving signals, but the presentation of so many of them side-by-side creates an ominous feeling that we are not the observers; that we ourselves are being observed.
Next come several objects related to the film “To Kill A Mockingbird.” One is called Spin, and it shows images of Scout, the young protagonist of the classic book and movie, in the tire in which she is rolled onto Boo Radley’s front yard.
Radley, whom his neighbors believed to be dangerous and insane, turns out to be the hero in this story. So the word spin actually has two meanings here—Scout is spinning in the tire, and the town has spun a story about Radley that demeans him.
Part of Spin is a large piece of black velvet with stripes created with bleach, reminiscent of an American flag, but one with thick black and white stripes.
According to Munsell, the artist is commenting on the censoring or whitewashing of ideas unacceptable to the majority in society.
Next comes a full-sized, hand carved wood carving of a child, which calls to mind the carved objects (or soap carvings) that Boo Radley had made of Scout and her brother.
“This is another pivotal moment in the film,” Munsell says, “when the children realize that they are being watched, and that their enemy may indeed be their friend, looking after them.
Up above are two ominous-looking balloon figures, calling to mind Fritz Lang’s 1931 film “M,” which was remade in Los Angeles in 1951 with a much starker emphasis on the pedophilia only hinted at in the earlier version.
“The balloons scare me every time I come in here,” Munsell admits.
Then on the wall is a green-tinted photo of a woman, author Harper Lee, peering into the house in her hometown in Alabama that inspired the character Boo Radley. The piece, called Area of Refuge, speaks to the conflicted value systems that Lemieux encountered at an early age.
Finally, on the wall is a series of pieces Lemieux made in 1994, among her first artistic encounters with film, involving imagery from Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”
Bands of black essentially censor the imagery of the film, providing another comment on the extent to which we are permitted to speak out own truths.
Munsell encourages visitors to read the language she has created on the walls of the exhibition so they have some sense of contact for the pieces.
“Artists have always done work that isn’t immediately understood by their contemporaries,” Munsell says, “or can’t be decoded by the average viewer—whether that was the Impressionists in their day or the Renaissance painters in theirs.
“I hope visitors to the exhibition will take the time to understand the gestures Lemieux is making toward social and political issues of relevance to all of us, and toward other artists and film makers. The show sheds so much light on our contemporary political movement.”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through March 4th, 2018. For further information, www.MFA.org.