Sandra Meigs at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg

By Terence Dick

A recent visit to the McMichael brought to light the heretofore unappreciated impact of weather conditions on my reception of visual art. I had first seen Sandra Meigs’ installation Sublime Rage at the end of May when I made the trek an hour north of Toronto to the local bastion of all things Group of Seven in order to catch Meryl McMaster’s Bloodline exhibition just before it closed. On that mild spring Sunday, my admittedly rushed perusal of Meigs’ recently opened maze of canvas banners pegged them as playful portraits of colourful trees. Cut to last week, one month later, a whole lot hotter, and the haziest day thus far in our summer of coast-to-coast wildfires. Meigs’ radiant trees now resonate with undeniable urgency and carry a sense of dread that I was blind to on my first run-through. In fact, the dirty orange hue that spans the horizon has me rethinking the whole notion of the landscape as a subject for art in any form.

Sandra Meigs, Fallen Eastern White Cedar. Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Ontario. Melting Sun, 2021, gouache on paper (courtesy: Susan Hobbs Gallery; © Sandra Meigs)

The McMichael is the perfect venue for confronting this conundrum as it houses an iconic selection of paintings depicting various combinations of land, water, and sky. In addition to the aforementioned Seven, plus peers like Emily Carr and Tom Thomson, the collection has over the years acquired and exhibited landscape-focused work by Indigenous artists and an assortment of contemporary practitioners. When it leans historical, the gallery promotes a vision of the country as beautiful or, at least, sublime. By introducing the likes of Meigs (not to mention McMaster) into the equation, the tradition that is the institution’s foundation becomes more than problematized – it becomes untenable. This is made starkly evident in Meigs’ potentially unassuming gouache studies, which were painted during pandemic sojourns to Algonquin Park and Lake Calabogie. The loose lines that surround wobbly trunks rooted deep in visible soil and stretching past dripping orange suns express an uncertainty that pulls the rug out from under any comfortable notion of what forests in Canada are like.

Sandra Meigs, Maples. Spring Creek Trail, 2022, gouache on paper (courtesy: Susan Hobbs Gallery; © Sandra Meigs)

Instead, the sized-up prints suspended at odd angles loom over and surround viewers, pushing them into tight corners and limiting their ability to keep the trees at a distance. This is Meigs’ crucial manoeuvre, because it disallows any passive response and makes the experience unexpectedly confrontational. At a time of rapidly evolving climate crises, when millions of acres are aflame and the smoke has spread over large parts of the continent, when yesterday was the hottest day on the planet on record (breaking the previous high of the day before yesterday), when floods and hurricanes are as common as wildfires, and when permafrost in no longer permanent, how can we simply look at an image of a tree or a forest or a mountain, and think, “beautiful” or even “sublime”? (And this is not to mention the other problem of North American landscape art, which is its deployment in the colonial project and erasure of Indigenous presence.)

Shary Boyle, Revival Beach, 2011–15, ink and gouache on paper (Weisz family collection, photo courtesy: Shary Boyle; © Shary Boyle)

The curatorial vision of the McMichael is clearly attuned to this shift in the context for their chosen subject matter. Guest curator Jessica Bradley flags it in the title to Meigs’ show and Chief Curator Sarah Milroy places it front and centre in the current group exhibition The Uses of Enchantment: Art & Environmentalism. Leaping from fairy tales as a repository of childhood fear and dread to unnerving impressions of nature in decline, Milroy assembles a collection of surreal plants and animals that struggle, mutate, and adapt to the pressures of an environment under assault. Shary Boyle’s paintings and sculptures suggest a Grimm Brothers’ fable for the Anthropocene. Bill Burns’ survival gear for small animals would suit a Roald Dahl novel about the loss of habitat. And Sara Angelucci’s humanoid birds evoke the post-apocalyptic species that emerge when climates collapse.

Winnie Truong, Midnight Feelers, 2022, coloured pencil and cut paper collage (Scotiabank Fine Art Collection; photo courtesy: Winnie Truong; © Winnie Truong)

Despite the smoke particles in the atmosphere (and my lungs) and the heat dome I’m enduring as I write this, there is hope. Winnie Truong hints at it in her cut-paper vegetation, and Qavavau Manumie depicts it in his multispecies rescue efforts. The simple solution is for human animals to see themselves as part of nature rather than outside of it. Deadly weather should be the last resort reminder that we’re torching the very ground beneath our feet. A better recourse would be to model our awareness on the artists who are most attentive to that which surrounds and, for the time being, sustains us.

Sandra Meigs: Sublime Rage continues until November 19.
McMichael Canadian Art Collection: https://mcmichael.com/
The gallery is accessible.

Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is the editor of Akimblog.