An architecture of experience

By Aaren Madden, November 2013

Sandra Meigs presents overlooked spaces as powerful repositories of mind and emotion.

After she was born in Baltimore in 1953, Victoria painter Sandra Meigs’ family moved around a lot. Still, as one does, she retains a few strong impressions of childhood home interiors. One is of the picnic table and bare bulb in the family kitchen. “My parents weren’t decorators by any means,” she shrugs, smiling. For a time as a teen, Meigs presided over the entire upstairs on her own. “That felt like a world to me,” she remembers. 

As a contemporary artist, Meigs does not always look to architecture as inspiration, but when she has recently, her interior spaces thrum with the presence of the mind’s inner world.

Between 2008 and 2010, she showed a series titled Strange Loop. In minimal colour and large scale, these paintings of grand historic interiors are animated by repeated images of simple faces in every architectural element, from the ceiling coffers to the stair rails. They put this viewer in mind of the childlike, magical relationship with space not considered since Madeleine saw the rabbit in the cracks of the hospital ceiling (in Ludwig Bemelman’s book Madeline). The effect is to acknowledge these interior spaces as more than the physical shelter that they provide, and certainly more than visual cues to time, taste and status. 

Instead, Meigs presents them as repositories for experience and emotion. “This work was about just loading paintings up with a presence of something that lives inside of [the mind] that the viewer then has a relationship with,” she says.

“I’ve always been really interested in the psyche,” Meigs explains. So much so that after getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, she attained a Master’s in Philosophy from Dalhousie University in 1980. Her path of inquiry eventually led to the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. “[He] talks about how our experiential self is actually part of the world,” Meigs explains, adding, “I think art has a similar potential, in that when the imagination of the artist can be put into a work of art, it is possible that the viewer can then become a part of it.” 

Throughout her extensive career exhibiting in North America, Europe and Australia (and in her 20 years teaching painting at UVic), Meigs has explored this notion to vastly different ends, depending on where inspiration has taken her. Usually, though, her work exudes what arts writer Sarah Milroy has referred to as “comic minimalism”—an engaging blend of iconoclastic wit, visual play and simplicity.

The Basement Panoramas, Meigs’ latest works now showing at Open Space Gallery, ventures into a contemplative and deeply personal realm. In these paintings, Meigs moves, quite literally, from the lived areas of the house to shine a light on spaces not usually considered worthy of contemplation; the hidden and the between.

She started seeing them differently herself in early 2010, when she bought a house in the rocky Summit Hill area of Victoria. It was built in 1922, and, says Meigs, “I fell in love with the crawlspace.” Among the exposed bedrock, Meigs found a technological palimpsest: a coal furnace replaced by oil; previous electrical wiring and telephone technology became like memory. 

Meigs’ new husband had moved from Seattle to live with her. However, in January 2011 at the age of 63, he passed away from cancer. During the brief months he was with her, as his health declined, Meigs shares, “I immediately started relating to [the crawlspace] as a space dealing with mortality, because it contained time, and it was away from the world, and he was starting to retreat more into himself.” 

Her relationship to the space inevitably made its way into her art practice. “Having come from Strange Loop, in the main part of the mansions, I was interested in the foundations. What could all those structures reveal?” 

From that question emerged the four paintings in The Basement Panoramas. These paintings are “my way of communicating my process of grieving over that period,” says Meigs.

In technical terms, she approached each painting the same way. She started with photos of a space taped together to form a panoramic view. From these she created a “schematic,” a simplified drawing of each scene that was then enlarged greatly (at widths ranging from 18 to 45 feet, they are necessarily polyptychs). They are painted with absorbent ground, which behaves like a watercolour surface that will soak up the pigment almost like a fresco, “so you just feel like you are melting into the architecture.” Meigs explains. Gently but decidedly, one is “drawn” into the spaces.

Each painting represents a different colour, location and state of mind, titled accordingly. “Red. 3011 Jackson. (Mortality),” representing the crawlspace in her home, is a saturated cadmium red “because it’s so hot and bloodlike,” Meigs explains; “it’s very internal.” Here is a visceral representation of coming to terms with the fact of death and letting go of the loved one.

“Blue. 1000 Mountain Rest. (Breath)” advances and retreats with hot red lines and cool blue washes. The underlying structure is the porte-cochere of Mohonk Mountain House, a sweeping Victorian castle resort in New York State. “Its just such an amazing structure because it doesn’t look as if it has anything holding it together except itself,” Meigs observes. This being a transitory space of entrance and exit, “I immediately started thinking about breath. When I went through the grieving process, I did breathing exercises. They are very specific to bringing your body back to the world, because what happens is, you kind of shut down within yourself,” she shares.

Of the four, “Breath” is the only work without text. In “Mortality,” spaces are labelled, almost like the map of a mythical kingdom. Meigs explains, “I really wanted to identify how my mind thought of these structures in terms of a world where one would be mortal.” 

Text combined with colour conveys very different states in the paintings “Yellow. 435 Longmeadow. (Insomnia)” and “Grey. 224 Main. (Transformation).” Jittery swirls of bright yellow and glaring blue lines (and a bare bulb) evoke restless agitation. It’s heightened by the figures present, along with brief words—“drifters; lost souls”—and extended writings that resign to the state, even while “healers” offers hope. 

Meanwhile, placid greys convey acceptance in “Transformation.” Here, the image is mirrored onto itself twice, with the effect of creating a spine of floor joists. Meigs sums up: “The architectural space is, in many ways, a metaphor for the mind, and in many ways, the body’s relationship to the world,” she says. 

Which is why their scale, also, is part of the story. In order to fully engage with it, says Meigs, “you have to walk the painting.” 

And with that movement viewers will, inevitably, be moved. 

Opening reception Nov1 at 7:30pm. The Basement Panoramas also contains a kinetic installation, and runs Nov 1 to Dec 14 at Open Space Gallery, 510 Fort Street, www.openspace.ca.

Aaren Madden has vivid memories of swinging on a wooden swing in the basement of her grandmother’s home while dusty shafts of sunlight slanted in from the windows and illuminated jars of peach preserves so that they looked like jewels.