The Annette Messager exhibition newly opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is only the second retrospective of a living female artist that the museum's department of 20th-Century Art has ever mounted. (The first was 1990's "Helen Frankenthaler: A Paintings Retrospective.") I don't know as I'd say it has been worth the wait, but only because the wait has been inexcusable. The Messager show, on the other hand, is wonderful.
Curators Carol S. Eliel, from LACMA, and Sheryl Conkelton, from New York's Museum of Modern Art, where the show travels next, have assembled 55 works by the French artist, ranging in date from 1971 to 1995. A certain consistency of theme and method runs through all Messager's art from the last 24 years, but her work grows progressively more complex and forceful as the 1990s approach.
In their poetic evocations of worldly mortality, brittle fragmentation and hybrid forms that are at once magical and horrifying, elegant and funny, sculptures such as "The Pikes," "Nameless Ones" and "Penetration," all made since 1991, echo "Boarders at Rest," which dates from 1971. The "Boarders" are 55 small, dead birds, which the artist gathered from the streets and parks of Paris, and for which she knitted and crocheted pathetic little garments of tatty yarn.
Laid out like anthropological specimens in an austere display case near the show's entrance, the preserved birds establish a melancholic tone for the exhibition. Birds, as Alfred Hitchcock showed us, can function as complex symbols, where ecstatic freedom meshes seamlessly with nightmarish terrors. Messager's little creatures, domesticated in death, have been absorbed into a cultural ritual of feminine nurture.
The sculptural vibration between freedom and nightmare, ecstasy and terror, strikes a potent social and political chord. It is sounded more loudly in "The Pikes," which gathers the sweep of political history into its realm.
Impaled on 114 mostly tall, slender, metal poles that lean against the wall are cadaverous colored-pencil drawings, assorted parts of dolls, fragments of maps, nylon stockings stuffed with cloth to look like shrunken heads and other indescribable but organic objects (they seem like viscera). Like the pikes on which guillotined heads were paraded in revolutionary France, these are sculptures of wrenching ambivalence.
The guillotine, remember, is an infamous oxymoron--a humane machine of death, designed to minimize pain and suffering as it lops off your head. And the barbarism of parading severed heads on spears is a ritualized celebration of triumph over threat. Messager frames her aestheticized pikes within the peculiar context of the art museum, where, it has been said, our culture proudly displays artifacts of a way of life we have made impossible.
The show's most immediate sensation is one of relentless fragmentation. Artistic identity is not being asserted here as an independence of being, but as an atomized dream composed from shards. The first galleries are jam-packed with small notebooks; seemingly hundreds of little framed pictures papering the walls; the artist's autograph, written dozens of times in scores of different handwriting styles, and more.
Next comes a sense of hybridization, as all that fragmentation begins to be recombined into quirky, evocative, jerry-built forms.
1993's "Nameless Ones" are 21 taxidermized birds and two squirrels, their heads replaced with those of children's stuffed toys, impaled on pikes in a small room dimly lit by bare, suspended light bulbs. In a spiderish web of black cord, 1995's "Parade" suspends a frilly doll's dress worn by a pheasant's head along with other hybrid creatures, while a stuffed cat, squirrel and other animals are tangled in a nearby pile of netting on the floor.
These animals are not creatures of the wild; they are urban animals, at least partly domesticated birds and mammals that must contend with the socialization of humankind. Their wildness is of another order: Mixed together with parts from children's toys, they are effigies of us. Messager's sculptural fusion of nature and culture is at once beautiful and grotesque, tender and scary, an imaginative flight of fancy and a fearsome trap.
Provocatively, the artist insinuates another form of fetish or surrogate into many of her works, and it hits the mark. The proliferation of contemporary photographic reproductions is an inescapable source for both the fragmentation and hybridization of modern experience, which Messager pointedly evokes in several works titled "My Vows" (1988-91).