The Canadian Art Database

William Wood

Approval: Sandra Meigs, The Room of 1,000 Paintings
YYZ, Toronto

C Magazine # 12, March 1987.
[ 1,139 words ]

In a skewed pun on inferiority and taste, Sandra Meigs has set up this 'parallel space' as a living room with oral overtones. Presumably the pink of the walls, with its childhood associations of mouthy satisfactions, derives from the room where the family does its aesthetic snacking, if not from the gooey qualities of laid-on paint. So, in suburban mode, the doorway is marked by a wood-burnt sign bearing the exhibit's title and the 'room' is marked off by two backdrop details of brain tissue articulated by historicized architectural moulding. After this armoured entry, she has added, in Friendly Giant style, a recliner chair for relaxing and a couch for the rest of the bunch while over in the corner stands dear Popeye, six feet of candy-glossed, mouthwatering fiberglass. The paintings are hung along three walls, in twenty-three almost even rows of three, with babyfood-yellow frames and meretricious, bright scribblings inside. The pictures go along with this New World biedermier atmosphere, raising not so much the question of bad taste as the more intricate matter of mental clutter. The title, with its near miss of Scheherazade's 1,001, summarizes the vague mythology and synaptic misfires which Meigs capably illustrates.

Placed for viewing in this way, the paintings concern the meeting of vulgar and specialized realms and Meigs seeks to accentuate the relative value of each term. If the pictures retreat back to a childhood 'interior' they also extend on to the fascinations of mass culture. Their particular aptitude is for crossing paths between, recollecting fancies and pushing home the complexity of investment suggested. Subjects vary from being consistent with what is typically found adorning living rooms to being incongruous illustrations of what is otherwise valued therein; there are landscapes and portraits of dogs and horses, but then Snap! of Rice Krispies fame and Wonder Woman are also given their due. Stranger things are imaged as, well — deformed kittens climb the walls, crystal balls and goofy faces bump up against smiling anthropomorphized cottages and headless women. This variety produces a sort of scampering reverie, where the delight of seeing so much overcomes any cranky impulse to relegate the lot to kitsch oblivion. The effect is to reverse the positions of regard so that terms like 'typical' and 'tasteful' become indexes for parcelling investments rather than being the means to dismiss entire classes of production and consumption. Meigs is no naive-ist, however. Her sharpness lies in becoming immersed in received culture from both ends of the arbitrary scale — if the painting sinks to a tempting amateur status, the installation revives a knowing historical placement. Neither aspect dominates.

Indeed the arbitrary is what is under question. The paralleling of the gallery sends up the distribution circuit for art as much as it parodies aesthetic blunders. When, as in an artist-run space, the producer displays wares to an informed group of peers, the process resembles the home viewing of travel slides; the informal collection of artifacts performing as a social as much as a market intervention. How this activity addresses a 'public' beyond is always disputatious, raising the problem of access that Meigs represents through the domestic staging. From the other end, I was struck by how Meigs' subject matter mirrors much figure painting. Those horses and landscapes, even the mysteries of boys getting haircuts and headless women turn up treated and retreated throughout the galleries of the world. Given the aspiring quality of such imagery, the allegorical use of animals as ciphers for human empathy or the pop-surreal jokiness of cavemen and superheroes, this mimics how painting functions outside of this one room. And Popeye is content to look at it all, being the ever-recurrent blissful spectator, the weighted socko bobo doll that always returns aright in our aesthetics.

As in the classic, and now popular, version of aesthetics, these pictures would seem to offer up imagery as a palliative for the roughness of the world. The lions and tigers are tamed and the occult signs of fortune telling and ghosts legitimate phantasmal experience. Portraits and generic scenes from the everyday confirm their putative owners' place in the world, yet the ensemble confers upon Meigs a certain placement as well. While she may appear to be pandering, simply reflecting a certain milieu, there is a side of this work that is research-oriented, foregrounded by the neurological and oral allusions of the installation. Somewhere along those paths of nerves, taste is encountered, but it might just be as variable as Popeye's craving for spinach versus Wimpy's pursuit of hamburgers. How imagery and specific aesthetic objects become desired and endearing, how certain techniques and media become valued, are questions of difficult negotiation between social norms and individual attention. Meigs's concentration on childhood is but one entry into this realm, but it is one that parleys notions of subjective vulnerability and habitual return as the source of obsessive attachment. Such attachments inform Meigs's deployment of imagery to a point where the 'tamed' quality of representation flirts with the envious possession of the subject's power, becoming emblematic of the child's position in a dynamic of fear and desire — images are presented to the child by guardian authorities, and object choice then becomes implicated in the development of identity and the search for approval.

Refracted through this childhood locus, the matter of taste becomes psychically muddy, revealing, as with food, what is comforting and also what is urgently pushed away, but in the topsy-turvy manner of feared congruence and eager differentiation. What starts out as a recapitulation of aesthetic norms becomes run anew as a catalogue of sensitive points where the 'interior' has been penetrated and defensive measures taken. The roughness is not erased or pacified but is inured instead, and the paintings reflect a process of scarring. The Room of 1,000 Paintings bears with it this melancholy cast, indulgent in its sense of capture, remote as to what has been got hold of. If there is a sense of free play, of recollection, then this is countered by the presence of the empty chair and couch; Mom and Dad chose the painting on the wall and the kid is here competing. Such a conclusion might be distasteful if it did not readily confirm some longstanding notions of the ways our visual culture operates, peripheral to the mass even as it copies its every move. Meigs, then, is a consummate pasticheur soliciting our particularly corrupt approbation.

C Magazine # 12, March 1987.

Text: © William Wood. All rights reserved.

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