By JENNIFER MCMACKON
Sandra Meigs’ exhibition at Susan Hobbs Gallery is called Scenes for My Affection. In the main gallery the artist presents two clusters of small colourful paintings. The first is an untitled set of three, each of which has a neon “dummy” or funny face embedded in a mise en scene, creating an electric double entendre. The second family of six works entitled, Scenes for My Affection, initially appears as an arrangement of monochromes – an impression that disintegrates as one draws closer, discovering imaginary, interior realms etched into the colour fields of the individual painting surfaces and encountering protruding elements such as transparent glass globes and droopy, disconnected plastic tubing.
Most of these works are “framed” with flimsy ribbons of coloured theatrical lighting gel or silvery reflective mylar . These somewhat debased materials simultaneously refract and contain light, both within and without the surfaces of Meigs’ paintings so that they seem to sparkle or wink. These ersatz framing devices conjure an array of ocular associations, their kitsch sparkle falling on a spectrum somewhere between memories of shifting, disco party light and the hollow glow of a rabbit’s eyes caught in late night highbeams. Somehow the frames lend the paintings the uncanny air they are viewing spectators in as much as they are also on view.
But it’s not just the frames. Glassy orbs seem to bubble like eyeballs out of many of the Mattisse like interiors of the Scenes for My Affection series. Some also feature dangling clear plastic tubing, suggesting strange and private circulatory systems that have somehow become severed from the faint contours of a courtroom or a pool hall, among Meigs’ depicted tableaux. Or consider the Untitled 2006 work pictured here. One can see the image trapped inside a fence of orange gel. A crude horizon is implied by washy beige brushwork and stronger, orange squiggles indicate a cartoonish psychic force field. A female figure, completely enshrouded in a red cloak but for a bit of leg and green socks buries her face in the arms of a comfy chair. Or is that so? Because in the folds of the cloak are inserted three neon lights as slim and bright as matches. Two cold white electrical eyes and a mouth poke right through the foreground of the painting. A rudimentary face, like a blinkenlight person staring and blank seems to ask with inflected English, “Are you looking at me?”
Meigs’ paintings often pose this enigmatic question . What are we looking at? Elements of bitter paradox have long resided at the core of her work. The Scab Picker, an enormous 1984 mural at the ( now closed) Ydessa Hendeles Gallery, depicted a beautiful pastoral landscape incised with a doorway, through which could be glimpsed a portrait of a hideous mountain troll toying with a cut on his knee. Ten years ago at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery, another series, Dummies, collapsed landscape into portrait in a fantastic and surreally excessive exploration of the grotesque and abstraction. Since then, Meigs’ dummy portraits have simplified and multiplied in installations such as Joy Joy Sorrow (1999). And they’ve shown up in chalky surfaces of minimal colour field explorations like Donor, Green (2006).
The works in Scenes for My Affection demure to this history and at the same time they throb with it. Susan Hobbs’ upstairs space is dominated by a single huge painting. The piece, entitled What The Inside Sees, is rendered in an abbreviated scale of perhaps two, maybe three grays and a white. The scratched contours of the works downstairs become much more luminous in this painting at larger scale. Depicted is a rather grand staircase in a foyer in which two big rabbits and a small dog form a listless committee. The scenario has the aura of abandonment, a place usurped by half light and leaves, like Miss Havisham’s House in Dickens’ Great Expectations. It appears too, to have been overcome by an army of ghosts. It is swimming with Meigs’ trademark blank, staring faces. There is no way to view this painting outside of their notice, embedded as they are, in nearly every surface of the room. Their visages even inhabit the air between the spindles of the staircase banister . There are also two hilarious eyeballs resting on the room’s key table! What The Inside Sees transforms the singular question, “Are you looking at me?” into a choral arrangement. And it does sing.
It’s only a minor disappointment, but I wish there were a few more of these large paintings in Scenes for My Affection. What The Inside Sees is so fearless and so much fun, one can only hope Sandra Meigs has more like it on the go in her studio in Victoria, British Columbia. This is an extremely rewarding, if slightly transitional exhibition by a painter who really pushes the envelope.
“Sandra Meigs: Scenes for My Affection” is on view October 25 – December 15 at Susan Hobbs Gallery.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Susan Hobbs Gallery. Bottom image by Toni Hafkenscheid.