The award-winning artist has created a breathtaking experience in “Room for Mystics.”
November 16, 2017
One recent morning at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a three-piece brass marching band dressed in banana-yellow jumpsuits made its way from the fifth-floor elevators to a pocket gallery aswim in sunny light.
“Room for Mystics” read a sign above the door, unfurling like a big-top attraction at a particularly self-aware travelling circus — which, more or less, is what Sandra Meigs had in mind.
Meigs, 64, won the annual $50,000 Gershon Iskowitz Prize back in 2015, which comes typically with a solo exhibition at the AGO the following year. Inside, the reason for the delay comes clear: 30 paintings, all made specifically for this moment, sit propped back to back on custom-made easels. A giant bright red mobile — a pair of thick-lashed eyes, peacefully shut, twirling above a placid, slow-sweeping grin — dangles languidly overhead.
Amid the brass procession — an everyday occurrence for the show’s full run, by the way, at 11:30 a.m. — a spare chorus of single notes rises and falls, perpetually wrapping Meigs’ sunny space in an enveloping calm.
“That was the idea,” she smiled, on this morning the very model of serenity herself. “To just be able to enjoy the moment.”
Peace, though, has not always been so easy. Room for Mystics represents the end of a long journey from chaos to calm. In 2011, when her husband died, Meigs felt an urgency to her grief. “It was a wake-up call,” she said. “It’s a cliché, I know, but life is short.”
As an artist, Meigs, who lives in Victoria, had accomplished nearly everything. A Governor General’s Award winner, her work has landed in nearly every significant collection in the country. But she was suddenly unsettled by the ache of loss and the elusiveness of peace. She turned, of course, to work, her persistent playfulness giving way to deep introspection. A series of colossal paintings, The Basement Panoramas, showed here at the Susan Hobbs Gallery in 2014, laid bare her grief.
Through the darkness and to the other side, Meigs resurfaced the following year here, wholly changed. All to All, which debuted at Susan Hobbs in 2015, showed a powerful shift from dense grief to joyful irreverence. Amid the brightly painted clusters of disks that festooned the gallery top to bottom, the artist herself was present: each day of the show, she played a gong at 1 p.m.
Meigs has always been a painter who strains at the convention of painting itself, eliding the polite habit of pictures on the wall for a display that subverts rather than conforms (“I’ve always considered the experience to be part of the work,” she says plainly; the labyrinth of work at the AGO is maybe its fullest embodiment so far).
But this was different. Emerging from her private pain was both deliberate and specific. To find her way, Meigs turned to meditation, to Eastern philosophy and to theoretical physics.
(Not quite the reach you’d imagine, she says: “I read Einstein’s biography at one point. Oddly, it really clicked with what I was learning in meditation. He was such an inspiring person; he could see wonder in everything.”)
Along the way, she found new ways to work that still slipped nicely into the arc of her life’s pursuit. All to All was a gleeful explosion of colour and sound.
“It was kind of a rehearsal for this,” she says, looking around the AGO space (to bring the music past the gong’s one note, Meigs collaborated with the composer Christopher Butterfield). “I loved raising the energy and the vibration in the space. It was so joyous.”
“Joyous” is an easy word here, swathed as one is, in the art museum equivalent of a warm blanket. Meigs’ paintings go off in every positively charged direction.
“Wowzers!” reads a tidy bit of script floating in a bubble of purple. A crackling gyre of bright yellow funnels slim fragments of black; placidly smiling faces float amid densely patterned balloons, a cosmos of bubbly tranquility.
They’re a breathless array of esthetic difference, nonetheless knit together. “They all came to me very spontaneously while I was meditating,” Meigs says. “I worked like crazy for two years but, really, it felt effortless. In this one,” she says, singling out a canvas overwhelmed with tendrils of undulating red, “I was generating energy. And to me, that’s an energy-generating machine.”
As the band marched slowly around the perimeter of the room, Meigs cast a satisfied glance about. “I love hanging out in here and watching people looking at it,” she said softly, as the slow, sonorous tones of the band’s spare song rose through the space. One lap, then another, and it was done, but only for today.
For Meigs, though, something else is finished here. “Each painting I have really special feelings for,” she said. “But for me, it’s really about moving on. I’m ready for the next phase of my life.”
Sandra Meigs: Room For Mystics continues at the AGO to Jan. 14. See ago.net for more information An accompanying show of Meigs’ work at Susan Hobbs Gallery, The Glass Ticker, runs to Nov. 25 (susanhobbs.com).