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ART : A Private World of Women : Annette Messager makes art about women's rituals, the secrets they develop in a world of male privilege. Just don't call her a feminist.

June 11, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

'I found my voice as an artist when I stepped on a dead sparrow on a street in Paris in 1971," recalls French artist Annette Messager, whose work is the subject of a retrospective exhibition opening Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "I didn't know why, but I was sure this sparrow was important because it was something very fragile that was near me and my life.

"Like the people I love, these small birds were always around me, yet they remained strange and mysterious. So I picked up the sparrow, took it home and knit a wool wrap for it. Why? I can't say. You want to do something and don't know why--all you know is that you have no choice, that it's a necessity."

That sparrow was the first in a "family" of dead sparrows that Messager collected, preserved and clothed for presentation in "The Boarders" ("Les Pensionnaires"), a haunting, morbidly funny work completed in 1972 that was to launch her career. Messager baptized her sparrows, created devices to discipline them and take them for walks, made an alphabet of feathers to teach them language, and displayed them in orderly rows. The roots of much of Messager's subsequent work can be found in "The Boarders," which incorporates allusions to the need for control, women's handicrafts, fetishism and fakery, the act of collecting and cataloguing, the experience of loss and mourning, and fictional narrative.

Regarded in Europe as one of the key artists of her generation, Messager has exhibited regularly there for 22 years, but remains largely unknown in this country. She has, in fact, never had an L.A. exhibition before the LACMA show, which includes 58 works and three site-specific installations dating from 1971-95.

That the show was co-curated by LACMA associate curator of 20th-Century art Carol Eliel and Sheryl Conkelton, associate curator of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art, is indicative of the complexity of Messager's work. Photographs--some that she takes, many more that she appropriates--play a central role in her work, and she's often described as a photographer. She, however, insists that she is not, and summarizes photography as "the horror of time reduced to a quarter of a second"; traditional photographic concerns clearly aren't what's driving her.

The LACMA show, which travels to New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago after closing here Sept. 3, is a fairly splashy debut for a woman who describes herself as shy, and one gets the impression it all makes her a bit nervous. Meeting with the 52-year-old artist in a Greek restaurant near LACMA, one encounters a decidedly French woman--which is to say she's graceful, beautifully dressed, and she smokes. Soft-spoken yet strongly opinionated, Messager seems to visibly wince when asked pointed questions about her work, which she designs to operate in a zone of mystery and intuition. Being interviewed leaves her so distracted she hardly touches her lunch.

The label most often affixed to Messager's work, which often deals with the subjugation of the female body, is feminist; this is a tag she both accepts and rejects.

"I'm reluctant to call my work feminist because in France feminism is different than it is here. American feminism is much more dogmatic," says Messager, who lives outside Paris in Malakoff with her companion of 22 years, artist Christian Boltanski. "France is a Latin country where machismo is important, but it's also the country of Simone de Beauvoir. It's a country of contradiction with a strong sense of tradition, and French feminism tries to integrate the past into the present. I don't go to rallies and speeches--my feminism is deeply embedded in my work."

Rejecting the hubris central to much European art of this century, Messager chooses instead to ruminate on the secrets of women, on the private rituals and ablutions they devise in order to maintain a sense of themselves in a world of male privilege. Hers is an aesthetic rooted in the accumulation of small things rather than the grand statement, and as can be said of work by the great poet of the ephemeral, Joseph Cornell, her art shimmers with a bittersweet, heartbroken beauty.

Disdainful of the notion of "good taste" and drawn to things usually dismissed as unworthy of attention, Messager fashions her mixed-media works from materials common to the average home: thread, hair, glue, safety pins, fabric, photographs, stuffed animals, clothing, dolls. From these humble materials she's developed a style rooted in the Structuralist belief that context is the most powerful factor in the creation of meaning.

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