By Catherine Wagley
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By L.A. Weekly critics
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|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
Michael Baers, one of the local artists behind the exhibit at The Lab, "2337 Valley View Drive: The Mystery of Lemoine Redmond," discovered the house on his regular walks through the neighborhood. The property was obviously uninhabited and open to the elements, and eventually curiosity got the better of him. He began poking through the abandoned rooms, and was struck powerfully by what he found.
Baers returned to the house with photographer Koshtra Tolle, who says she "spent four or five hours, in a daze" photographing the lushly desolate interior landscapes. Tolle's hazy photographs, full of seeping light, capture the sense of a house that no longer maintains the boundaries of interior/exterior, much the way Lemoine's mind must have seemed at the end of her life -- without social boundaries, and infinitely lonely.
While Tolle was taking pictures, Baers sifted through papers and old photographs and began to piece the rough outline of a history, from photographs, documents and the slightly crazy rantings Lemoine had scrawled from time to time, unsent letters to public figures and lists of things to do. Along with the usual detritus (50 years' worth of magazines), the more curious effects included a picture of Lemoine dressed as a '30s showgirl, and a raft of painstakingly executed costume designs from the same era, leading Baers to conclude that this had once been a life of promise and aspiration.
Still, all this might have amounted to a passing curiosity, except for the presence of dozens and dozens of Redmond's oil paintings. These are executed in a distinctive, homespun style, of a quality level falling somewhere between thrift-store gems and the "Outsider Art" that became popular a few years ago, done by schizophrenics, autistic adults and other eccentric shut-ins, such as Henry Darger. There are landscapes, paintings of house cats, portraits of public figures from Queen Elizabeth to Ronald Reagan, a Virgin Mary holding a baby space alien, and a series of media personalities with rodentlike teeth and claws.
The rough paintings are spectacular on their own, if only by sheer force of number, but in the context of the abandoned house, they provided a set of psychological clues along with the physical wreckage of a life. Together, these items formed the basis for a compelling, if ultimately irresolvable, "mystery." How does a person go from bright, shiny showgirl to crazy lady standing in the yard topless feeding dog food to tree frogs?
"She seemed to have all the advantages of beauty and talent, so why did it go so awry?" Baers wonders. It's also a condition every artist secretly, or not so secretly, dreads: How fine is the line between talent and delusion, and how close am I to it? And worse -- would I even know it if I slipped over to the other side?
BAERS DESCRIBES HIS EXPERIENCE AS ONLY GRADUALLY amounting to an art show: "One of the weird, contrary things about the project is that it's very intimate, yet it's like archaeology." And Tolle admits, "We had this experience, and we needed to share it. But also, we were just Nosy Parkers."
Baers and Tolle didn't know it when they began their project, but they weren't the only people in the community who had discovered the house. After they began publicly putting together an exhibition of its contents, more and more people from the neighborhood, many of them artists, came forward saying that they knew the house and had also taken some of Lemoine's paintings.
In addition to the paintings and Tolle's photographs, Baers has assembled a wall-size matrix of her snapshots, grocery lists, and other miscellany, such as the Ten Commandments scrawled urgently on a slip of paper, and one of the uncashed checks for $25,000 from the estate of a late boyfriend. "What I wanted to do was transcribe the experience of discovery," Baers says. "A grid is as rigid a form as you can get, but you can make your own connections in it."
To complete the gallery show, Mark Housely and Tammy Fittes created an iconic installation around objects pulled from Lemoine's house, and designer Lily Hotchkiss made costumes from Lemoine's sketches. The objects provoke strong emotions in viewers, mostly around issues of privacy. "My first reaction was, 'You took her soul!'" The Lab owner Amber Pierson says of the time the artists approached her about mounting the show. "A lot of questioning went on, of 'Is this the right thing to do? Is this a preservation or a violation?' The perverse side of it is provocative, of course."
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