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Features / December 15, 1997

Sandra Meigs: Strange Enchantment

If there is such a thing as a fairy-tale city in Canada, it must surely be Victoria, British Columbia, the place where Anglo-Canadians go when they ride off into the sunset.

Consider the inner harbour at the city’s heart. Its sights include the neoclassical Royal London Wax Museum, with its Chamber of Horrors and its Storybook Land. A showpiece sequoia tree. The domed B.C. parliament buildings, traced with lights. The modern Royal British Columbia Museum, with its Northwest Coast ancestor poles. The stately Empress Hotel. Then, Miniature World, the “greatest little show on earth,” and on into the high street, where tourists can enter emporia selling British woolens and emerge dressed like the royal family on a shooting holiday.

The studio of Sandra Meigs is steps away, on the third floor of a 1886 landmarked site in the downtown’s tiny Chinatown, just inside the red and gold filigree of the Gate of Harmonious Interest. The building appears on a picture postcard. There is a wonderful irony in this, and in the fact that Meigs now lives amidst this deeply conservative, and cheerfully over-the-top, fantasy empire. Not content with the more scenic, brochures for Victoria promise “enchanted” tours. On the edge of the Western world, it is a haven not only for movie and television producers fleeing L.A., but for artists from Toronto, which Meigs left in 1993. It is a paradoxical place to find her, as her work counsels that, appearances to the contrary, safety and well-being in middle-class North America are at a premium. Enchantment is for tourist guidebooks. In Meigs’s own guide to everyday life, an aura of enchantment may hover over recent series of dark, sparkling and perverse “portrait” paintings called Dummies, but it becomes a means to look death in the face, to push the fairy tale of the happy family into frightening regions of the uncanny and the formless.

The Dummies series alone makes Meigs one of the most interesting painters in the country. Rich and strange, these remarkable paintings epitomize the threat of unseen exterior forces and inner psychology that comes with the sense of living on the precipice that haunts her work. Edgar Allan Poe, an influence on the Meigs’s early work The Maelstrom, 1980, identified an “innate and primitive principal of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness,” as the antithesis of reason. Born of impulse, it blooms into the uncontrollable desire to do what “we feel that we should not”—look down and meditate on the plunge.

A similar perverseness is powerfully at work in Meigs’s art. Her work insistently tests the line between the rational and the irrational, order and chaos. It tugs at the layers of convention that cloak infernal realities with impossible myths, stripping them down to get to the truths of experience. Like an adolescent with a wild streak, she revels in extremes and contradictions or, if not that, approaches them without flinching. Her gaze has the gravity of a watchful child, like the wakeful consciousness portrayed in her self-portrait as an adolescent girl, Angel Eyes, from 1987. It is a dialectical image, one that stares back at its viewers to make eye contact, a connection. Is this Meigs, the woman-in-the-child or the child-in-the-woman, or both?

The pretty girl poses—head tilted, cheek resting lightly against folded hands—mimicking sunny juveniles innocently learning the arts of seduction in photography studios. But she, a solemn, sloe-eyed dreamer, looks out with the direct stare of an adult awareness. With one gesture, Meigs portrays herself in a moment of part experience and presents herself in the present. She constructs a complex, multidimensional image of herself as the work’s producer and as the child/woman who might have longed for, or dreamt of, the work’s other images: the sensuous Persian cat, the rearing red stallion, the bug-eyed insects, the button-eyed animals. She is part and parcel of a dream-world capable of sliding silently into nightmare.

Named for the song Angel Eyes is Meigs’s first and only self-portrait in an art practice that began in the mid-nineteen-seventies. This large, six-panel painting installation, with its hot optical colours pulsing under movie lights, clarified her position as an artist who has steeped her work in popular culture. “I was brought up on cartoons … and I’m sure they affected my psyche somehow,” she says. “So my interest in my art is to expose that machinery, whatever it is, rather than to cut it out.” The activity is a critical process that Meigs carries out by working through dialectical opposites: childhood and maturity, innocence and worldliness, natural and unnatural, consciousness and the unconscious, perversity and reason, comedy and tragedy, life and death. “This is how I see life,” she once remarked. “There is always a particular meaning that is destroyed by an opposing force.”

Meigs adopts the perspective of childhood and adolescence—formative developmental periods with deep, far-reaching effects—to prove the intense primal life of the psyche and analyze the ways in which mass culture influences individual identity and ideas about the world. The forty-three-year-old artist’s world-view has been shaped by her reading of philosophy, especially the Frankfurt School. But her thinking is hardly muscle-bound by theory. She thinks poetically, transforming personal experience into larger social and metaphysical spheres. If Meigs challenges the conventional pieties and cultural duplicities that lull us into living as consumers of myths, distanced from the reality we contrive to deny, she does so as a storyteller. She startles her audience with dramatic tales of melancholic Gothic sensibility in which eroticism, violence, alcoholism and death are swirling undertows.

The stories unfold within theatrical installations. In the past, Meigs often combined film, narration, painted dioramas, stages, three-dimensional figures, drawings, sound and short stories to construct works that gave viewers several avenues from which to enter. Since 1992 she has concentrated on installations of paintings accompanied by texts. As before, every story is saturated with atmosphere, imbued with a sense of place. “I want to create a world for the viewer that completely contains the viewer,” Meigs says, “so it becomes an experience.” Moreover, she wants the experience to be intense. As a genre of extremes unto itself in North American mythology, the West figures prominently in a number of tales: The Western Gothic, from 1984; Love Muscle, 1989; Dead Roads, 1993; and Mary and Baby, both 1994.

The Western landscape provides the backdrop. Travelling when she can, in the the pauses between bodies of work, Meigs makes plein-air gouache drawings of the landscape. “Drawing is an important and spontaneous act,” she’s said, “my way of being in the world.” Most often, the sites she chooses are the rugged, primal landscapes of the West, spaces in which the raw power and immensity of nature and the depth of time can be felt: the Alberta Badlands, the Mojave Desert, Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Monument, Zion Canyon. “You see and feel and you hear things that get your mind wondering,” she says.

Wondering and drawing leads to new work. The desert drawings that fed into Dead Roads turned into five diptychs, Meigs’s first use of the diptych form, which she accompanied with a poem of her own, also for the first time. “The cattle roam to water holes, / and I to where nobody knows,” it reads. And, in another stanza, “Always going, / never stopping. If there’s nothing, / why risk knowing?”

Dead Roads marks a turning point in Meigs’s work that brings her stories closer to the bone. One of the two interwoven texts in Love Muscle reiterates the overheated romantic myths of pulp fiction–“When she whispered penetrate his rocket blasted into her yearning flower”—while the other—“Die Now, Deny Now, Blunder Now, Feel Now, Act Now, Free Now, Tell Now, Want Now, Love Now, Live Now”— reads as a prompt to shed an old life and live in the moment. In Dead Roads, a meditation on life and death, Meigs writes in the “I” voice and invokes the song, an ancient storytelling form that appeals to memory.

Songs have played a role in Meigs’s work since she incorporated the country-and-western tune “Smokey the Bar” into Purgatorio: A Drinkingbout (1981-82). Listening to country-and-western music, she became aware of her “attachment to the poignancy of the text, and the back-and-forth pull of the cheapness and the commonality that everybody attributes to the that kind of music, and to the beautiful and actually meaningful stories of everyday life.” The realization led her to write poetry of her own that she could imagine being set to music.

The love song’s common appeal and the desire to recapture lost love flows through Mary. This set of thirteen diptychs is based on “Sad Waters,” a song by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, which begins by quoting the ballad, “Green, Green Grass of Home”: “Down the road I look and there runs Mary / Hair of gold and lips like cherries.” Meigs alters the story by adding a different name after every line. Each of the named women appears as an enigmatic, cartoonish, close-up portrait on the right-hand panel of a diptych. The left-hand side depicts a distant figure in a landscape inspired by a line in the lyric. It is a double view of romance that lifts the veil of nostalgia from the face of intimacy as every woman’s face blurs into the memory of every long-lost love.

Made at the same time, Baby goes more deeply into anxiety and fear, as though to expunge them. It is a continuous twelve-panel painting, whose agitated surface and strange claustrophobic images come together like a surrealist “exquisite corpse.” The fifty-two-foot-long painting describes a descent into delirium in which the merging of bodily interior and exterior landscape becomes equated with birth and death. Meigs wrote Baby’s text first, among the sheer cliffs of Utah’s Bryce Canyon, exhausted and unable to paint because her own daughter was then a fretful, sleepless infant. Inspired by a tragic event in one of William Kennedy’s Albany novels, the story tells of a mother who “with a slip of fate” accidentally dropped her baby. “She hit the ground / And that is that,” reads Meigs’s poem. Yet, when the distraught mother thinks of jumping into the river, there is baby’s smiling face to stop her, looking out with a preternaturally mature gaze that seems to meld mother with child.

“That is that,” of course, can hardly account for the complexities of Baby, a work in which the very opposite of maternal and nurturing also points to the strongest of primal desires, reunion of mother and child. Meigs dredges the psyche’s emotional bottom and de-sublimates the scariest things she finds there. The Baby poem’s “slip of fate” could be kin to Freud’s “slip of the tongue,” intimating sublimated maternal desire not only to give life but to take it back. “Never plant the seed, / if you’re expecting grace,” goes the knowing poem.

Canadian, a fiercely perverse, melancholic series of fifteen paintings from 1995, links images that might ostensibly describe Meigs herself. But the artist mixes fiction with fact. She resists being defined in a work that ponders the sources of identity and creativity. The latter’s origin in the child’s delighted discovery of its own excrement is suggested by the dark brown paint from which the images emerge. Most are based on illustrations from children’s books and fairy tales, but this is a case of disenchantment. Oscillating between formal beauty and revulsion, the series, with deadpan irony, implies the hapless nihilism of the slogan, “Life is shit and then you die.”

Heaviest irony, however, is reserved for the cherished myth of childhood innocence. Here, the innocent, an illustrator’s fantasy, is a little blond girl in a red dress, gazing up at a big brown cloud bursting open above her head. She is beset on every side and yet protected by her creativity, which has the power to illuminate the darkness. As for identity, what more famously indecisive nationality than Canadian to signify the nature/nurture ambiguities and social/cultural contingencies? Yellow discs, like suns or blank Happy Faces, are attached to the bottom of each painting and are inscribed with attributes like “Sensitivity,” “Secret,” “Career,” “Love” or “Hate.” The works cunningly crafts a public persona and reflects its tenebrous side in quaint scatological imagery. It embodies a distant, conflicted past, as Meigs, who was born in Baltimore, dwells on the careless, traumatic grip of the family.

Like a compulsion to repeat, the family has been a recurring theme of her work. “Family Life” is the title of her unconventional artist’s biography for the Canadian’s exhibition brochure. Bits of the personal background, against which Meigs tells her stories, are allowed to surface in the text: the onset of her mother’s “hysteria,” concern about being like her, anxiety over having her father, brother and sister’s disease, alcoholism. “Drinking” is one of the attributes represented in Canadian’s parody of romanticism. Its companion image is a dark Hansel-and-Gretel cottage in which the thatched roof has dissolved into an eerily silent, blue, rushing waterfall.

The uncanny is usually the real world’s unnatural double, but in Meigs’s work, is has always been the agent of authentic experience. Seeking knowledge and truth, Meigs invokes it to rend the empirical reality of the world of appearances.

This is most apparent in Dummies, where Meigs deals with death as the ultimate experiential extreme. If Dummies has a narrative, it is the visual one of the dissolution of the subject into the intangible—a visual feat that seems to occur even as you look at a painting that disquietingly returns to your stare. That is, perhaps, the ultimate dialectical gaze. “I do like the life-and-death theme,” Meigs says. “That’s all there is.”

Meigs started Dummies, in late-1995 with paintings of clownish models. The figures were literal dummies concocted from bubble pack, towels, J-cloths, tape, joke-shop lips, old paint brushes, a broomstick here, a metal rod there, strips of paper, and bits of other trash from the studio. “Then I painted their portraits,” Meigs explains. The images are fairy-tale grotesques, the kind of wraiths and banshees, invaded by goofiness and decay, yet sometimes Meigs’s silliest images are the most profound. Six months into the series, her alcoholic sixty-year-old brother committed suicide. So assaulted was his body by alcohol that her sisters were asked to identify him from black and white photographs of his face. They could not recognize him. “The images of those photographs won’t let them alone,” Meigs writes. “After hearing their story, trying to link them and me through the telling of the story to some horrid, forsaken knowledge of my brother’s experience during his final days, I started thinking about my Dummy paintings.”

As the series came into focus, Meigs mused over this family plagued by madness and disease in an artist’s book. Suicide Portraits, commissioned for the anthology Notebook Projects, published in 1996 by the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. Appearing on the title page of her section, a photograph of the Meigs family at the beach in the fifties could be an icon of the perfect happy family. Mother, dead in 1985 , and son, dead in 1996, are highlighted by shining auras, and Meigs identifies herself as “Sandy, her daughter, his sister.” On subsequent pages, however, her mother, “Cookie” and her brother “Chips” are identified by Dummies portraits reproduced in vignettes above fragments of interwoven texts. Cookie’s text—“her face / looked at his face / but she couldn’t ever / get it out / of her mind”—again effects a melding of mother and child with its “her,” who could be Sandra, who writes in the Dummies, text, “I have always thought about the image that, like a terrible obsession, won’t let you alone.”

Literally and ironically, perhaps, the family becomes a bunch of dummies, but what stunning, contradictory portraits these Dummies are. Portraiture is a genre that implacably reifies its human subjects, turning faces into objects. But as doppelgangers, the Dummies evade reification. Their uncanniness confuses the human with the inorganic and, in the most radical of them, it collapses horizontal/vertical, figure/ground relationships into a state of formlessness. The images are freed from gravity’s pull, suspended in time; they seem in a perpetual state of returning to matter, and Meigs, in an extraordinary move, enhances both their elusive quality and their permanence as objects by endowing them with literal auras of light.

Light shines directly onto the images from small upturned floodlights attached to the bottom of each canvas. It dances about like an electric current, bouncing the reflection on strips of whisper-thin silver mylar tape that run around the edges of the pictures. The Dummies seem under a spell. Meigs thinks of the light as their voices. It draws us closer to images that might repel if their surfaces did not fascinate us with their bizarre beauty. Tragicomical entities, hanging between being and nothingness, they embody the ultimate dialectical images where life gains its piquant savour in the sharp awareness of death. There is no morbidness. One feels enthralled, elated, alive. It’s no wonder that the artist likens these fabulous monsters to the elusive play of memory and the imagination.

During the time she worked on the paintings, Meigs began thinking about making a film—for the first time in ten years—as she watched her three-year-old daughter, Evelyn, at play. The work-in-progress (it is actually a video) shows the child dressed in a pink nightgown, rolling herself up in a red plaid blanket. She rolls up and unrolls, rolls up and unrolls. The effect is like a window shade going up and down in a continuous loop that transforms into what Meigs calls an “ecstasy of repetition.”

A three-word refrain from a Shaker song punctuates the rolling action and gives the video its title, Turn Round Right. Hearing the song, like seeing her daughter in the blanket (it might be both chrysalis and shroud), was another striking moment Meigs happened upon. The elements came together in thoughts about her brother’s death, echoing her preoccupations in the Dummies. But this time there is a joyful sense of continuity and renewal.

Meigs was visiting a Shaker museum in Kentucky when she first heard the song. The words were sung in a strong, clear, ungendered voice that rose above the “tourist rumble.” The song goes: “When simplicity is gained / to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed / to turn, turn, will be our delight / till by turning, turning, we come round right.” The song’s moral and the child’s ecstasy make an uncommon combination, but as Baudelaire said of Edgar Allan Poe, strangeness is “the indispensable condiment of all beauty.”

Strangeness is the unexpected element, the surprise. In Meigs’s work, it is the gesture that breaks the surface of things as they are given. It is the glimpse of something beyond.

This is an article from the Winter 1997 issue of Canadian Art.