|Photo by Debra DiPaolo|
ACCORDING TO NEIGHBORS, THE LATE LEMOINE Redmond often stood in her Echo Park yard, topless and muttering, feeding dog food to tree frogs. She had hair on her chin and conspiracies on her mind. Toward the end of her life, she had only kerosene lamps for light and ate only peanut butter, even though two checks for $25,000 made out to her were found among her effects when she died several months ago, so alone that no one bothered to lock up her house when she was gone.
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.”
Pierson overcame her own doubts so well that she's now talking about a future attempt to secure Lemoine Redmond's assets in the name of a foundation for young artists (and yes, that the people doing the securing happen to be young artists seems awfully convenient). At the same time, Pierson claims to have had reservations about Baers' desire to sell the artworks associated with the show. “I had a sneaking suspicion that Michael wanted to put her stuff up for sale,” Pierson says carefully, “and it was decided that that was fine. But the gallery won't take a dime. It will all go into a charity trust to support artists.”
Baers is without qualm. “The ethics of appropriation don't bother me,” he says. “Tammy and Mark have very strong feelings about not profiting. I initially felt that way, but in some ways, I'd rather it be in a collector's hands than in mine.”
For Baers, the show is a jumping-off point for further contemplation. He hasn't heard anything about a plan to create a foundation, and what he wants to see come of the project is a book that would be a collage of her writings and paintings, and more developed thinking on the issues raised by the show. “The narrative of her life is archetypal. [Author] D.J. Waldie saw the show and said, 'It's a very Los Angeles story,' and it is. L.A. has become the American City. Suburbia was honed to perfection here, and everyone's from somewhere else. It's the capital of dislocation.” Of which Lemoine is emblematic: “Besides the artwork, there's this clear sense of a brain that traveled through the 20th century. You can see the whole backdrop — her dates with soldiers in World War II, her show-biz aspirations . . . “
He's right: It's as an everywoman that Lemoine sings to us. But it would seem from the evidence that Lemoine Redmond, while attractive, was a far cry from star material — and how many young girls in the '40s had their pictures taken in showgirl attire? Isn't it the equivalent of today, let's just say, working the auto show in a bikini? And while her paintings have the spark of imagination, and are by all means wonderful objects, to think that she's an undiscovered artist would be going too far. Lemoine may have been a failed artist, but it's far more likely that she simply didn't have enough beauty or talent to make a go of it in any area of the arts.
The fascination of Lemoine's existence ultimately lies in how mundane it all is; even at its most outrageous — the paintings, the peanut-butter jars, the bags of fresh dry cleaning, the personal documents — it all seems to somehow reflect the brutal, zany mediocrity of life in the interstices of Los Angeles. Everyone knows this view of L.A.: the gray-green pastures of failure that extend out as far as one can see in all directions, indistinct landscapes of toil and isolation, vast regions of unspecialness. Sometimes it's where you're from, and it's always where you hope you aren't going, but fear you will end up. The mystery is by nature unresolved, and unresolvable. Like death, it's a condition you can never really know until you get there.
2337 VALLEY VIEW DRIVE: THE MYSTERY OF LEMOINE REDMOND | The Lab | 835 S. Spring St., downtown | Through November 18