[This review appeared in the first edition of an art review bulletin cum blog I started with Tyler Hodgins, in the spring of 2006 called Fault Line.]
Sandra Meigs at Deluge.
This show has been written about in three separate venues (nothing short of a miracle in Victoria), yet little of the critical attention seems to have been focussed on what goes on inside the paintings, how they work. Despite the fact the ‘expressionistic’ (read awkward, grotesque, silly or morose) aspects of Meigs’ subject matter –as well as the artists’ biography- tend to attract attention, there are formal elements to the work that should be talked about. In part because they lead to a fuller understanding of the conventions of expressionistic painting in general, and in part because throughout this installation (of older work that the artist has revisited), there are examples of a thoroughly controlled use of colour, texture and especially space.
There is an old art-historical distinction between ‘optical’ (the view at a distance, as in painting) and ‘tactile’ (touchable, as in sculpture)…in modern times, painters (such as Rothko or Newman) have requested a tactile distance of the viewer -within the ‘personal space of arm’s length- and used the vibration of saturated colour to mark the subtle switch from regarding to touching that takes place as we move closer. Meigs’ work at a distance fulfills the role of a narrative series, as related to their connection to song lyrics. Up close is where they are properly experienced as individual events, about working distance (eighteen inches), so that the supports turn from rectangles to open spaces, the frames dissolve and the colours begin to soften and merge with reflected light.
Colour, space and line (including the texture of the paint body) can’t be separated here. In one piece, for example, a simplified torso appears, as a red field of colour, inside of which is a knotted lump of paint, illegible as chewing gum. The knot is a visual problem, one gets hung up on its texture, while the red field, momentarily ignored- begins to swell and contract. This is a way of creating friction – smooth versus striated space- the smooth space allowing the eye to hover and the striated form attractive but also agitating, granular, like sand in an oyster.
Van Gogh is an accessible example to look at for contrasting the frisson of texture with the radiant effects of embedded, intense colour. A closer reference might be Chaim Soutine, once declared a supremely ‘oral’ painter by Robert Hughes -a description that also fits here- for the curiously cramped-yet-heaving compositions of his paintings of the village of Ceret…A horizon that becomes a figure or vice versa, a drooped, lumpy line that suggests presence by implying mass, like a saddle or a uterus. In terms of the tight fit of a figural image to its immediate space, I’d compare them to the impasto work (such as the ‘hostages’) by Informel painter Jean Fautrier, the way in which the image is not (yet?) clear but hovers in the space where we expect the readable image ought to be. Look for this same occlusion in the abstract pictures of Philip Guston. Meigs uses this device with great control in the Mary paintings: there is a great instinct for scale as it relates to a sense of physical closeness with the viewer, and her colours and forms are deliberate-looking but also atmospheric.
Are the painted frames too intrusive? They look too strict in Deluge’s bright southern light at midday, defaulting to a hard graphic black (only close up, the colour swims a bit and the frames do what they should)…this is not necessarily a problem at other times of day, however. The frame of each piece creates a long (‘landscape’- oriented) picture on the left and a vertical (‘portrait’). The device could look a little contrived at a distance, but is very effective close in at competing for the viewer’s attention by offering two interfaces which, in terms of the usual sympathetic visual scan (the search for a figure to identify with in the picture) are unsatisfactory. The landscape images seem to be scenes in which a tiny figure may be just visible or churned into some mastication of strokes (too far), and the portrait segment gives us something of a face – a chunky silhouette, rope for hair, three orifices- that is more a smudge (too close).
Wendy Welch (writing in Monday Magazine) has suggested that the open expanses of colour in some of Meigs’ compositions recall Minimalist colour field painting. It seems an odd connection at first, except that looking back to seminal statements from that era (like an interview with Frank Stella and Donald Judd from the ‘60’s) one sees that so much of what defined that period was the sense of immediacy that was meant to break with European ‘composing’…The famous insistence on a presentation of ‘wholes’, rather than a representation incorporating parts. This meant no metered introduction into the space, no contrapuntal balancing of hard and soft elements, no narrative tension in the splice between figure and ground. The works demand the space around them and become figures themselves. As such, classic Minimal presentations (such as Stella’s Black Paintings) have a tendency to stare –there is no other word for it –which is to say, direct their mass toward the viewer in a way that can’t be deflected. Meigs has used devices in other work (paintings lined with reflective Mylar, compositions with light bulbs, title placards) that cast her work into the space around it, and her paintings stare as well.
What kind of stare? There is a delay from the recognition of these forms to the sense of their becoming fluent; they are clear but obtuse. This gap belongs to all kinds of indicators of ‘expressionist’ or emotive painting that came after Pop art, as potentially not (or not only) a way of depicting feeling, but its quotation. The nature of Meigs’ characters has often underscored this problem, as figures that don’t amount to identities: ‘resin heads’, ‘orifaces’, ‘Canadians’, and most compellingly, ‘dummies’. The figures are exactly that: projections, quotations, questions, or formulations, like De Chirico’s composite mannequins, tailors’ dummies and statue-shadows, or Guston’s Klansmen…A way to get the figure into the picture and yet not. A blank stare as no feeling is forthcoming. Although these comparisons have already risked being too varied and distracting, one important one is Munch’s foetal nerve-bundle from The Scream. The figure is not a person but an anecdote (“then I heard the scream”), a pictogram for a non-visual phenomenon. Not a reflection of the viewer or a summation of the artist, but a sign stuck between our space and the space of looking, pressed up against the former by the baldness of its facture and appended to the latter by the most passive of painterly drags.