Anxiety by design 

Anna Lemnitzer takes art to abnormal lengths

Anna Lemnitzer's hands and pants are covered in white dust. A friend of hers crouches on the floor, painting the panes of an unhinged window white. Tools and brushes and buckets are strewn everywhere. The weekend-long process of installing Dysfunction, Lemnitzer's M.F.A. thesis exhibition, is just beginning and she's trying to explain to me what it will look like when it's finished. There will be, she tells me, videos, drawings, installations, even light switches for viewers to flip.

"But I call it all painting," Lemnitzer says, "because the color is used in layers." She pauses, notes my confusion, and tries to explain. "Even though it's sculpture, I call it painting."

I'm getting further away from understanding, and she notices.

"I know," she says sympathetically.

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  • The video “A Room of His Own” is part of Anna Lemnitzer’s exhibition on abnormal psychology.

That Lemnitzer calls her show painting despite the fact that it contains no conventional paintings isn't perversity. It's a combination of convenience—she's a student in the painting department, so her show has to be of paintings—and of her genuine and sustained effort to push her work beyond the boundaries of a canvas.

When she first arrived in Missoula from Tucson, Ariz., where she'd been teaching high school art, she was interested in the kind of painting you do with paint on a two-dimensional plane.

"Then I started looking at landscape and rock formations and I was interested in the fractures of the landscape, so I started doing that but everybody kept saying 'That's Ab Ex, that's Ab Ex,'" she says. What they meant is that they saw her work as being derivative of Abstract Expressionism, the mid-20th century school of art that was led by people like Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning and that was defined by spontaneity, energy and abstraction. Lemnitzer didn't like that. "I'm like, 'No it's not. It's rock and it's fractured. And you're not getting it.'"

From there, she tried to relate her work to the human body: how we all age and fracture and die. "But that wasn't apparent in the painting," she says. "So I examined it and looked at what are fractures inside of the human body or the mind. So I started looking at mental disorders."

An important influence was Charlotte Perkins-Gilman. Her short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" is about the mounting madness of a woman who's been locked in a room by her husband. As a result, some of the earliest works included in Dysfunction are drawn wallpapers and manipulated domestic objects that illustrate various manifestations of mental disorder.

But Lemnitzer's connection to mental disorders runs deeper than just a 19th century work of fiction. She's also motivated by her own "massive anxiety" and by her connections to people—friends, family members, fellow art school students—who have been deeply affected by mental illness.

"I had a friend who was murdered by a woman who was obsessed with him," she says. "And then a friend was killed in the Gabriel Gifffords shooting. That was all in the same year, actually, so I have kind of a bigger connection.... So trying be okay with people and myself is a big deal. I stopped doing art for a little bit after that stuff happened. I was like, 'I don't really know if I want to do this anymore.'"

When she returned to her work, she aimed for art that went beyond the decorative and encouraged "empathy and understanding." Part of doing so is making people uncomfortable. Dysfunction will include a number of videos that can only be viewed through peepholes. It's an awkward set-up, but that's the point. "They might get uncomfortable with other people waiting [for a turn to look]," she says, "but I kind of want that anxiety."

Some are found videos that have been edited, looped and layered. Others are disturbing performances done by the artist, her brother and others. "The videos are usually anxiety rituals," she says. "There's this disorder called dermatillomania, where they pick off their skin. So I did a piece where I simulated that.... And then another you'll look in and there will be sound—but I don't want to tell everything. I want people to just see it."

There will be a lot to see, as the work will overtake the big space of the Brunswick Gallery. Lemnitzer has even built a bar for the show and installed peepholes in it, so that viewers can watch videos while they have a drink. This, she says, will be called "the self-medication station." I have serious doubts that it will make anyone feel any better. But that, of course, isn't the point. Lemnitzer wants to make us feel something deeper, something harder: the discomfort of dysfunction.

Anna Lemnitzer's exhibit Dysfunction opens with a reception Friday, May 4, at the Brunswick Gallery, 223 W. Railroad St., from 5 to 9 PM. Free.

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