BOSTON (August 28, 2017)—This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), honors Annette Lemieux, a conceptual artist and the recipient of the 2017 Maud Morgan Prize, with her first solo museum exhibition in Boston in more than three decades. Annette Lemieux: Mise en Scène debuts a new body of work inspired by films that Lemieux felt an affinity for as a child growing up in small-town America: François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Fritz Lang’s M (1931). Although they are more than half a century old, the issues broached by these classic motion pictures—including repression, censorship, racism and classism—continue to resonate in today’s political climate. Extracting select elements from each film’s mise en scène—its environment, ambiance and visual mode of storytelling—Lemieux turns familiar images from cinematic history into stand-alone objects and paintings. In addition to new works, the exhibition also showcases five prints from the artist’s Censor portfolio (1994), drawn from the MFA’s collection. Annette Lemieux: Mise en Scène is on view from September 24, 2017 through March 4, 2018 in the Richard and Nancy Lubin Gallery, inside the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art. On September 28, MFA Film presents a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird, followed by an in-gallery discussion with Lemieux and Liz Munsell, Lorraine and Alan Bressler Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art and Special Initiatives. Presented with support from the Eugenie Prendergast Memorial Fund.
Established in 1993 in recognition of the spirit of adventure and independence embodied by noted New England artist Maud Morgan (1903–1999), the MFA’s biennial Maud Morgan Prize honors a Massachusetts woman artist who has demonstrated creativity and vision, making significant contributions to the contemporary arts landscape. One of the most important artists of her generation, Lemieux (born 1957) has shaped conversations on idea-driven art since the mid-1980s, combining the aesthetic and conceptual tactics of her contemporary art predecessors with a singular vocabulary of mid-20th-century found objects and images.
The drama and charged social issues unfolding today inspired Lemieux to seek inspiration in films that shaped her political consciousness as a young person. Black-and-white films that aired on television made up a good part of her early cultural education while growing up in small-town Connecticut in the 1960s and ’70s, and antiquing with her mother helped to develop the artist’s sharp eye for objects with multiple past lives. In her new series of works, she extracts key moments from the narratives of classic mid-20th-century motion pictures, focusing on certain objects that seem vaguely familiar or, in the case of film aficionados, are instantly recognizable icons of cinematic history.
“By reaching into her own past and films that speak to our national history, Annette’s exhibition bravely attempts to counteract today’s incessant acts of rewinding and repeating,” said Munsell.
The exhibition opens with Censor (A-E) (1994), five prints from a portfolio in the MFA’s collection. One of Lemieux’s earlier works linked to film, the series borrows imagery from an iconic scene in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), which satirizes Hitler through a fictional character named Hinkle. Lemieux’s manipulated images show Hinkle alone in his study, spinning a globe soon revealed to be a balloon that he bounces on his desk and pirouettes around the room. This choreography culminates in Chaplin popping and destroying the globe in a disturbing metaphor for Hitler’s aims of world domination. Released before the U.S. entered World War II, Chaplin’s film was an outright criticism of fascism, in support of American military efforts to counter it. The Great Dictator was banned in many parts of Europe, and Chaplin himself was later censored: the British native was accused of being a communist sympathizer during the McCarthy era and exiled from the U.S. in 1952.
Two new works that touch on the issue of censorship are inspired by Fahrenheit 451, François Truffaut’s 1966 film based on Ray Bradbury’s book of the same title. The Watchers (2017) is a direct visual quote from the opening credit sequence. The grid pattern recalls the TV color bar, which originally served as a mode of calibrating all television sets to present the same color and audio during transmission. The spy devices and satellite antennas that premise the film set the stage for a story that occurs at an unknown point in the future, when human life is highly regulated by government-controlled televised media, sedative drugs and book-burning raids. The literary bonfires are carried out by firemen, and Fire Cone (2017) is a replica of the object used by them in the film to secure the perimeter, its blue light and red stripes signaling a nationalist authority in a state of emergency intended to go unquestioned.
Set to a wallpapered backdrop reminiscent of Lemieux’s childhood bedroom, an installation within the exhibition features sculptures that the artist created to resemble objects that appear in pivotal moments of the German Expressionist film M (1931) and the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), based on the 1960 novel by award-winning author Harper Lee. Two of the sculptures replicate a toy seen in the opening scene of M—a ball bounced by little Elsie Beckmann on the street immediately before she encounters her soon-to-be kidnapper. The serial murderer entices Elsie with a clown balloon before kidnapping her during the final moment in which the child appears on camera. M was one of the first films to gesture at mental illness and the possibility of pedophilia, as well as to make a plea against the death penalty, raising key questions in an increasingly modernized world. Meanwhile, the carved wooden sculpture of Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird’s young protagonist, references the moment in which she and her brother find miniature carved figures made to look like them, hidden in the knot of a tree outside the home of their condemned neighbor, Boo Radley. The Scout sculpture’s scale—the size of a child rather than miniature—and the full color of one of Elsie Beckmann’s balls bring these originally black-and-white objects from the screen into the present.
Additional works that reference To Kill a Mockingbird include Area of Refuge (2017) and Spin (2017). The former features an image of the author Harper Lee revisiting her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Lee’s memories of her neighbors and family, as well as an experience she had as a young child, are said to have inspired the plot of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which takes on issues of racism, poverty, mental illness, difference and the struggle of equality for African Americans in the South. In Area of Refuge, Lemieux questions ideas of safety and home.
Spin depicts an image, repeated three times, from a key moment in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout unintentionally rolls into the yard of her feared neighbor, Boo Radley, while playing with her brother, neighbor and a tire. Although Boo is rumored to be insane and uncontrollably violent, he later saves the children’s lives from a white supremacist attacker. Spin’s pop composition acts as a full-color warning flag against the whitewashing of history.
Born in Norfolk, Virginia, Lemieux received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford in 1980. After graduation, she spent a decade in New York City, working as an assistant for artist David Salle and contributing to a burgeoning scene of appropriation artists—alongside Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman—who frequently incorporated text, images, objects and symbols from mass media and pop culture into their work. Her work was featured in the Whitney Biennials of 1987 and 2000, as well as the Venice Biennale in 1990. Currently a Senior Lecturer on Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, Lemieux has influenced younger generations of artists as a teacher for more than 20 years. Lemieux is the recipient of awards and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation Fellowship, Brown University and the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Germany. In 2009 she received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Montserrat College of Art. Her work has been exhibited internationally and acquired by museums across the U.S. and Europe. In addition to the MFA, these include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art, Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Victoria and Albert Museum, Tel Aviv Museum of Art and more. Lemieux’s critically acclaimed projects include solo exhibitions Unfinished Business (2012) at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and the mid-career survey The Strange Life of Objects: The Art of Annette Lemieux (2010) at the Worcester Art Museum.
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