Annette Lemieux

Annette Lemieux

Conceptual mixed media artist Annette Lemieux's work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Decordova Museum; and numerous museums around the world. She has received numerous grants and fellowships and exhibits regularly at the McKee Gallery, New York, and was included in the Whitney Biennial 2000. Annette Lemieux lives in Brookline, Massachusetts and teaches at Harvard University.

Robert Birnbaum: You were born in Norfolk, Virginia.

Annette Lemieux: Yes.

RB: Is there a story behind that, or was it an ordinary circumstance?

AL: My father was in the military.

RB: Navy?

AL: No, Marines. So I guess that's why I was born there. We lived in Virginia, North and South Carolina when I was young and then when I was 3 1/2 or 4 we moved up to Torrington, Connecticut. Then my mother decided that she didn't want to go on the Marine tour anymore and said, "I'm staying here." So then my father took off to wherever and I grew up in Torrington. It was also my mother's hometown,which probably made it easier for her to say, "See ya."

RB: Did he come back?

AL: Oh no. He wasn't invited back.

RB: How long did your father serve in the Marines?

AL: He was a lifer. 22 years. He served in Korea and Viet Nam.

RB: Torrington, Connecticut sounds normal.

AL: (laughs) It's an old mill town. After the war, the factorieswent downhill because they weren't producing ball bearings. So thewhole place was—and still is—disintegrating. There are many empty storefronts.

RB: What's the population?

AL: I have no idea. I honestly don't know. I'm bad with numbers.

RB: How big was your high school?

AL: I don't remember, but it was pretty big. It wasn't likea small cow town.

RB: You went to art school directly after high school?

AL: No, I went to a community college my first 2 years, in Winsted, Connecticut.And then I had plans to go to Syracuse University, but I couldn'tafford it. It couldn't afford me, in terms of giving me money. Sothen, I followed a friend, stupidly, to Flagstaff, Arizona and once Iwas in Flagstaff, Arizona, I felt like I was on a deserted island. Voidof civilization. So I went back to Connecticut that next year and didn'tgo to school. Then I returned to school half time at the University ofHartford.

RB: How did you end up in Flagstaff?

AL: I went to visit my father and he drove me from San Diego to Flagstaff.I hated every minute of it.

RB: The drive or the company?

AL: With him. He was strange. He was a Jesus freak at that moment inhis life. It was like I was on a different planet. The landscape was strange.

RB: Was he out of the military at that point?

AL: Yes. I think he needed another club to join. He needed a larger-than-lifesupport system.

Lily(2000) by Annette Lemieux

RB: Why did you go to art school?

AL: The natural thing to do I think.

RB: I didn't go to art school. (Both laugh)

AL: For me it was very natural. I remember going into my guidancecounselor's office in high school, saying, "I want to be an artist."And he burst out laughing and talked me into applying to secretarial school.(laughs) Then I went to my art teacher and said, "I guess I'm goingto secretarial school." He burst out laughing. He said, "No, no, you haveto go to art school. We'll find a way and the money to get you there."So I got a scholarship and then Basic Educational Opportunity Grants.But I always made work. I remember my first painting in kindergarten.

RB: You said, "I always made 'work'." Instead ofsaying, "I always made 'art."

AL: Is that what I just said? Yeah, I don't want to be presumptuous.(laughs)

RB: Do you remember the first thing you made?

AL: Yes.

RB: Do you still have it?

AL: No. I didn't have the kind of parents that kept things.

RB: What was it?

AL: I think it was a background under the water seascape for a shadowbox. I remember there were three things: blue water, a brown rock andprobably an orange fish. I remember wanting to make the fish feel real.So I put the head of the fish on the right side of the rock and the tailof the fish on the left side of the rock and I created 3 dimensional space.I couldn't believe it. So for me it was a very exciting moment.

RB: Was being an artist synonymous with being a painter? Was paintingthe same as art, in the minds of children?

AL: Probably because it's the most immediate material. Everyonehas a piece of paper and watercolors or pencils. As opposed to paper maicheor pottery. Back then, any ways. I studied painting in Art school butnow I am mixed media.

RB: Let's jump ahead 30 years. Now, you are teaching at HarvardUniversity.

AL: (Long pause, both laugh) Next question. (laughs)

RB: Here you are, having left high school with ambitions to be an artist.One teacher tells you to go to secretarial school and another encouragesyou. 30 years later you are at the world's greatest university, teachingart.

AL: Yeah, kind of a big coup.

RB: Does the past reverberate in your life as you move forward? Do youcarry with you the memories of these things?

AL: Constantly.

RB: You have been teaching at Harvard for a while?

AL: On and off since '96. You want me to say this; they mademe a Professor of the Practice. I knew that's what you were fishingfor. I taught at Brown from '92 to '96 and then at Harvard.At one point I was teaching at both places. Which was too much: it wasall teaching and no making art in my studio. I'm really lucky andhopefully they're lucky having me there. Professor of the Practice—theytry to bring people in from an industry—that point of view as opposedto an academic point of view, that's what I'm there for. I'llbe teaching conceptual mixed media based work. We created a new trackfor the kids so that the kids can do theses with a conceptual thesis.It's always been there since I've been there but never formalized.Instead of doing a thesis on painting or sculpture or photo there is nowalso conceptual mixed media.

RB: Is Harvard interested in teaching artists art or creating artists?

AL: Both, probably both.

RB: Do you want to talk about the brouhaha surrounding the last directorof the program?

AL: Well, no. I'll say Ellen Phelan created a great program. Therewere many reasons why she was asked to leave. We were told some. I wasn'tthere and I don't know what's true or not true. She createda terrific program and there are a number of us that are still there workingwith the new Chair and trying to keep the program as good as Ellen madeit.

RB: I want to indulge my own interest here. I am more interested in understandingwhat's involved in living as an artist than what the product—theart—of that life is.

AL: How you survive as an artist.

RB: Right. I find talking about art—art theory and criticism has thislanguage that I find opaque. I understand that every discipline and lifeform has its own language games…

AL: A lot of artists feel that way too. About Artspeak, that's avery common feeling.

RB: You left school in that late '70s, early '80s?

AL: I graduated in the fall of '79 or '80 and I went to NewYork City. Luckily while I was at Hartford Art School, Jack Goldsteinand David Salle were teaching there. Big names in the '80s in theNew York art world. So I got to New York and I sort of had a job linedup with Goldstein, and that didn't work out, and when that fell throughI called up David Salle and I started assisting him and artists in hissame gallery, The Mary Boone Gallery. So I supported myself by workingas a studio artist, as an assistant, as a bookkeeper—that didn'tlast—as a receptionist—that didn't last, as a waitress—that didn'tlast.

RB: How long did each of those jobs that didn't work outlast?

annette lemieux
Walkingon Water Revisited(2000)
by Annette Lemieux

AL: About a half year each. I also did demolition. I did windowdressing.

RB: Demolition?

AL: You go in a place with an ax and you start whacking away.

RB: Great training.

AL: Yeah. I remember walking home—I was in lower Manhattan—inSoho and I would have to walk to the West Village, covered in white dust.People looked at me kind of funny, but I thought walking covered withwhite dust was kind of normal.

RB: Maybe they thought you were from New Guinea.

AL: I don't know. Let's see, where were we?

RB: Would it be fair to say that your early years as an artist in lowerManhattan were years of struggle and scrapping for survival?

AL Oh yeah. I remember having a $2-a-day budget. Which was pretty greatback then. It bought me a challah French toast breakfast. Coffee and orangejuice and a pack of cigarettes…

RB: How much were cigarettes?

AL: Less than a buck or a buck. Now they're $5. You can only liveon a $2-a-day budget for so long. I maybe pulled it off for a month butI was starting to get weak. I remember walking by grocery stores and bodegaswanting to steal fruit. I couldn't, I'm a Catholic girl. Itwas a pretty hungry time.

RB: What about the endless stream of openings and receptions and therebysupplement your diet?

AL: You know I never did that. People do this, stuff themselves, anddrink themselves to death. But no, I don't remember food being ata lot of openings. Or maybe it was all gone by the time I got there. Ihave no idea. (Both laugh).

RB: I think it's funny that event planners and publicists have finallybecome aware that there is such a crowd—the free shrimp crowd—peoplewho show up at events simply to gorge themselves.

AL: Oh yeah, Elias Fine Arts has the best food. Or maybe the only foodout of many galleries.

RB: Really. I guess I never get there early either. Early '80s,this is the time of Basquiat and Schnabel.

AL: Yes, it's the beginning of it. I worked for David [Salle].Julian [Schnabel] but we didn't get on so well. Matt Mullican, GaryStephan, Troy Brauntuch. These people were either at the Mary Boone Galleryor Metro Pictures. It was the rebirth of painting and a lot of money inart. Luckily in '85 I quit David—after a while you can'tbe a studio assistant. You just start drooling.

RB: You were drooling because of the big money art work was getting?

AL: It was more like it was hard to be in someone else's studio,watching them make work and doing everything for them so they could maketheir work and feeling miserable because you were not in your studio doingthe same, full time. I worked 2 days a week and would work all the othertime in my studio and that's why I was so broke. I left David soI could get health insurance via another job. I didn't tell you this,but in '83 I was run over by a white Ford van. I was sort of an invalidfor a while. The insurance company wouldn't insure me, in the end,anyway. So I was stuck doing this horrible book keeping inputting jobfor this art moving company. It was really terrible. I was really miserable.In '86 I got two grants, one from NEA and one from the New York Foundationfor The Arts. I had a show that was doing pretty well. So everything wascoming together that one year and it afforded me to quit my awful job,get a larger studio. Also, to get a very cheap small apartment in theEast Village. Basically, I just worked full time from '86 to '92without a need for a teaching job or any kind of employment. Then theart market crashed in the early '90s.

RB: In that period of full time art making, were you showing regularly?

AL: Oh yeah, I think I do about the same now. It hasn't changedmuch 2 or 3 shows a year. Plus all this other crap you do, like benefits.

RB: You do benefits?

AL: Oh yeah, judging shows. Panels. Lots of stuff.

If I couldn't do my work, it would be as if someone took the air out of me. It was a necessity to survive. So it would have been that or die. I didn't have a choice. So I just worked my ass off.

RB: You mentioned being lucky—I'm certain you are acquaintedwith artists who haven't been so lucky—have you considered whatyou might have done had you not been lucky? Is there a pivotal point whereyou became confident you could live your life as an artist?

AL: Well, if I couldn't do my work it would be as if someone tookthe air out of me. It was a necessity to survive. So it would have beenthat or die. I didn't have a choice. So I just worked my ass off.

RB: Were you tested past a critical point?

AL: I was tested. I think that I am constantly being tested.

RB: How were you affected by the art market crashes of the early '90sand the early 21st century?

AL: I was teaching in a lot of different places to keep things going.I would have just enough sales to be able to produce another show. Thisyear I had a windfall. I did really well with my last show in Aspen atthe Baldwin Gallery. I get pretty good critical support but that doesn'tmean you are selling out your shows or even selling one piece out of ashow. There has always been just enough to keep it going.

RB: A peculiar place for a serious art gallery, Aspen?

AL: Actually, not. That's where people vacation, who have moneyand who are collectors. And they have plenty of time to ski and look atart.

RB: How do you compare the opening reception in Aspen to one that mighttake place in Boston?

AL: I was there Christmas time, so everyone who was supposed to be therewas there, vacationing. It was closer to a New York opening than to aBoston opening. In terms of big-name collectors.

RB: And you did well in that show?

AL: Yeah and it was difficult work. It wasn't easy work. It wasmixed media work, Plaster sculptures, marble sculptures, paintings thatwouldn't necessarily be paintings for a painter. Photographic workdone on sheer material that was enormous. So, it was difficult but they're[Baldwin Gallery] are doing a great job with it. A 10-foot-high sculpturemade out of about 15 feet of hair just sold.

RB: A sculpture made of hair? Whose hair?

AL: It's real hair. There are all these bald women in Europewalking around. It was 7 ponytails—but it's more like 7 times3, 21 European ponytails. It takes about 3 good-sized ponytails to makea nice ponytail. It had to be real hair, of course, because that'show I am. It was dyed to my color and I pin curled it to reproduce thewaves that curl my own hair. It's great when you are working withsuch weird materials because a whole new world will open up. This happensconstantly because I am constantly working with new materials. But thepiece, which was created after 9/11—not that that work is so directlyconnected to that media experience, because I didn't experience itfirst hand—I couldn't do any negative imagery or negative assemblagein my studio. So all the images or things were positive gestures. Forinstance, one painting was called Comfort Painting. It was a circularbig pillow on a wall that you could lean on to. The hairpiece was calledRescue; it imitates a knotted rope for someone to climb down.

RB: Why couldn't you do what you refer to as negative images?

AL: I had an aversion to anything that was difficult to look at…thatbrought up images of 9/11 or images of war or devastation. Similar toBusby Berkeley films in the '30's while WWII was about to happenand the Great Depression is going on. Maybe it was some sort of escapism,I don't know.

annette lemieux
Fall(2000) by Annette Lemieux

RB: Have you gotten over it?

AL: No. I'm preferring making images that are more positive—thathave a lot more to do with life and less about death—there was alwaysa lot of death in the work. Now there is more life in the work.

RB: At what point in your life did you start to look at the body of yourwork say things like, "There is a lot of this or that in the work?"

AL: My last year at school. I got a BFA at Hartford Art Schooland never got an MFA because I didn't have any money. I also didn'thave the knowledge on how to do that, how to get a MFA. The work becamevery self-conscious then because I finally pulled it together. And everythingstarted to make sense—why I would do one thing and not another. Assoon as I got out of school I started to look at that work that I producedand saying. "Okay, what's wrong with it? What's missing?" Iwould analyze that and put those things in the work and I constantly makework that way. You make a piece and you say, "So what?" and then, "Whatis missing and where else do you have to go?" You have to be self-criticalall the time. It's a hard way to make work but…

RB: It just occurred to me that writers I've talked to don'treread their work.

AL: Really. They don't reminisce about a piece?

RB: I've never asked that question. They may have a sense of theirwork's totality.

AL: Have you spoken with writers who are also critics?

RB: I'm sure I have.

AL: I'm curious about how people work. A big part of teaching is teachingyour students how to critique their own work, by having group critiques.And you ask a set of questions…not that there are any right answersbut it's important to try to articulate what you are trying to pulloff so that you can figure out how to do it better.

RB: Strange word, 'better'. I think the notion of there beingno right answer or solution is quite right. In writing, much is made ofchoices that are presented to the writer.

AL: Yeah, I try to teach the kids what materials would best make theiridea physical. Whether a painting or sculpture or mixed media piece—welook at it and analyze it—there is skill critique as well as mental critique.It's about keeping your ideas clear, are they communicating. WhenI was first introduced to the word 'conceptual' I had to lookit up. I didn't know what the hell anyone was talking about. I alwaysthought about my work as practical art making as opposed to impracticalor unclear or retinal. I had problems with work that was purely formal.

RB: Two things that really interest me about an artistic life. One, isthe connection to the real world…

AL: That's a good one.

RB: Meaning the practical issues. Does one have a schedule and pay attentionto the clock? Do you do the same things everyday? Do you wake up at 4in the morning and say, "I have to do this." How much does yourlife resemble the ordinary workaday life?

AL: Work should consume you. But you have to know when to shutit off. Like, I love going home and putting on my cowboy pajamas and watchingdumb TV. When you are working that hard conceptually and physically inthe studio, you need to know when to shut it off. If you over work youare making less work in the end because you are exhausted. I'm like5 days a week, 9 to 5, 9 to 6 because that's when everyone else isworking. Maybe, I'm like this little industry like everyone else.When I was younger I probably worked longer hours and more in the eveningbecause I was younger and I had a lot of assistants-assistants would goget my lunch—I remember when I couldn't afford an assistantI didn't know how to go get my lunch. I realized there was somethingreally wrong when you can only operate in your white-walled area. That'swhy I like teaching. You get stupid if you are in the studio all the time.It's important to participate. I used to ride my bike a lot to mystudio and you have no confrontations when you are on your bike. You havemore confrontations when you are sitting in your car having road rageor when you are walking and you stop in all these different shops to getstuff for the day and you have these great exchanges and you see thingsyou weren't even thinking about looking at, that somehow influencea piece. So, it's really important to participate in the real life.That's why I'm 9 to 5, five days a week. Except when I'mteaching.

RB: Do you have visions or out-of-body experiences?

AL: Every night.

RB: Fantasies that somehow overcome you or come over you that disconnectyou from so-called reality?

AL: I have a very vivid dream state every night. In color. I don'tknow if this answers your question when I am working—really working,the world falls away. You are in this zone and there seems like this bottomlesswell of ideas. When you are not working it doesn't come to you. Forme, only through work can I make work and work begets work.

When I am working—really working, the world falls away. You are in this zone and there seems like this bottomless well of ideas. When you are not working it doesn't come to you. For me, only through work can I make work, and work begets work.

RB: I don't think we have exhausted this subject, but letme get to my second concern. How conscious are you of art as commodityin your work?

AL: I really don't pay attention to that too much. You can't.You really have to leave that outside of the studio. I remember in '86making a really enormous, big brown painting and saying to myself, "Whothe fuck is going to want this big brown painting?" It actually did sellin that show. They don't know what they want. So you make your workand hopefully they want that when they see it. I was never interestedin the idea of art and commodification. Like doing a whole career aboutthat. There are artistes from the '80s who do that. I think it'sa good idea for one piece, not even one show. It's very boring. Thereis always economics involved in whatever you do. So it's kind ofsilly.

RB: We've both seen the Johns to Koons Pop art show at the MFA.Jeff Koons is the artist that manufactures and has his assistants makehis work.

AL: That's a pretty common practice. It's very Warholian.But Ruebens did it too. Everyone did it. Michaelangelo had assistants.Rubens had a guy who painted the lions; a guy who painted the trees ora girl who painted the rocks. Rubens created the idea of factory beforeWarhol.

RB: So, this would not be a source of condemnation for an artist thefact that they mass-produce work.

AL: Art should not be confused with skill. Skill is a part ofit. Anyone can learn how to paint. The eye to wrist coordination—onereason I stopped making very large 2 dimensional paintings was that in1983 when I got in the accident in New York I got run over and I had torecuperate for more than a half a year and I couldn't make my largegeometric paintings that were actually symbols like flags and crosses.So I started thinking about the work pragmatically, coming up with theidea, "Okay, I can do photos of this or I can go buy this at a storeand it will be a sculpture after I manipulate it somehow. Or I can acquirethe paintings that somebody did and recombine them and call it somethingelse. So, mixed media conceptual is really how am I going to make workfrom the bed with all these casts on my body."

RB: What did you do with the casts?

AL: Threw them out. Not something you want to remember. It wasn'ta pretty moment in my life. It was pretty hard.

RB: What's the "Strange Shapes of Objects" show?

AL: Oh, "The Strange Life of Objects."

RB: Sorry.

AL: That was going to be the title for my mid-career show at theRose Museum [at Brandeis University] that I recently cancelled. That titlecomes from a quote from a Robert Pinkus article about my work.

RB: Can we talk about why you cancelled that show?

AL: It just wasn't the right situation.

RB: What is this notion of 'mid-career"?

AL: You are half way through your career and someone wants toshow it and summarize you at this point in time. It's not like aretrospective. It's quite common that artists in their 40'shave a mid career survey if they have a big history.

RB: I take it such a show involves much self-assessment?

AL: No, I don't want to assess myself. The point is you have tohave a very good curator doing that.

RB: And you are not creating new work.

AL: This is looking at your entire body of work. For me that wouldmean 20 years worth of work. At one point I was working with this greatcurator Lelia Amalfitano and she left the museum. She was one of the peoplethat were dismissed from the Gallery for the School of the Museum of FineArts during the Malcolm Rogers reorganization of the corporation…

RB: (Laughs heartily)

AL: Why are you laughing?

RB: I love euphemisms

AL: So she [Lelia] left the Rose and I was quite disappointed,not being able to work with her. If I were to go on to do this I wouldhave to recreate another situation with her or someone like her.

RB: So we get the story after all?

AL: Pretty much. That's the polite version.

RB: How do you look at the future?

AL: Of what? Of me?

RB: Your work.

AL: I'm just going to keep on making it until I can't. I justlook forward to making really good work. Without planning where that'sgoing to go. I 'm more concerned about making really good work.

RB: You have representation?

AL: Uh huh. In Boston it's a number of people. Barbara Krakow,in terms of doing shows. Mario Diacano, once in a while, because he reopened.

RB: Your work is always changing. Do you go through clearly delineatedphases?

AL: I'm constantly in a communication phase. [Robert laughs] Soyou have these different ideas that you want to communicate and then thematerials follow.

When you know someone'swork and you understand the visceral quality of the work then youcan view it in a website. You are not really viewing it the rightway, but you have an understanding of what it probably feels andlooks like.

RB: But in terms of the visual presentation, you could go fromlabeling garbage cans…

AL: Which I have never done. I just want to make that clear… the Black Flag print you did.

AL: Look has to do with language if a particular look carriesa particular phrase then you use that look. But it's not about thelook it's about the language it offers. It's not style conscious.

RB: Right. That's you. But curators who are assembling shows,what level are they operating on, visual or conceptual?

AL: Both. Mixed media and being stylistically different is notnew news. Think of Duchamp, Art De Povra and the conceptual work fromthe '60's and '70's. A lot of people have difficultywith it still. A lot of people think art is only painting.

RB: Someone who sees a piece of yours, how would they know what you areworking on currently?

AL: Oh, they know. Especially with web sites new work is prettymuch up now. People don't even have to go to galleries. When youknow someone's work and you understand the visceral quality of thework then you can view it in a website. You are not really viewing itthe right way, but you have an understanding of what it probably feelsand looks like.

RB: It's like seeing art in a book.

AL: Yeah, but it's not the best way. But a least you canbe familiar with what is going on stylistically. Especially if you don'thave opportunities to get to New York or Documenta.

RB: Do you look at art on the web?

AL: When I first became computer friendly, yes. But not so muchanymore.

RB: When you go to New York do you go to a lot a galleries?

AL: Not a lot. I can maybe do five a day. I don't see a tremendousamount. I never saw a lot of work.

RB: The current show at the MFA has over 200 pieces in it. Were you ableto digest the show.

AL: Oh yeah. I know the work. There were a couple of nice surprises though.It was nice to see the Baldessaris and the Lichtenstein that remindedme of Monet's cathedral paintings at different times of the day.

RB: I like the alcove of three Anselm Kiefer paintings.

AL: I liked the left one which had poppies and had to do with how lifelike poppies can grow in the middle of construction sites or the middleof a war. And if you go to Italy in the spring or early summer, it'strue you see a construction site of dirt pushed up as a hill and you havepoppies growing on top. It's somewhat amazing how life sprouts inthe worst situations. I really love that painting. I know the other stuffso I loved the surprises.

RB: This ends Part I. We'll try for Part II soon.

Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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