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Down in the Basement, Where Creativity Lives

Channelling the exuberance of kids left alone to play, a Richmond art show lets loose.

Dorothy Woodend 15 May 2024The Tyee

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

Faux-leatherette bars, spin the bottle, seven minutes in heaven, shag carpet, wood panelling, the occasional roar of the furnace kicking in. For those who grew up in homes with basements, they could be places of discovery, independence and freedom — a subterranean space between the more complex adult world and the pure pleasure of make-believe. Kids were free to ape the activities of the adult world, mixing fake cocktails, pretending to smoke, blending absurdity and genuine investigation into a frothy concoction. In short, basements are perfect places for art to happen.

A fascinating incarnation of this convergence finds a home in artist Hazel Meyer’s installation The Marble in the Basement at the Richmond Art Gallery.

In Richmond on a lovely spring evening, when a gentle warmth perfumes the air, Meyer and her two fellow performers are animating the installation, rolling marbles down a wooden contraption, dressing up in costumes, playing with puppets, enacting a curious narrative that derives, in part, from the artist’s own experience.

The Marble in the Basement is a bi-fold experience. There is the installation itself, a recreation of a classic rec room setup complete with piles of random stuff, old clothes and a fair amount of kitsch, and then there is the performance, wherein this accumulated, seemingly random material comes to life.

In keeping with the basement ethos, the performance itself was something of a ramshackle affair. The three performers (the artist and her two helpers) tell the story of Jane Rowland and Joyce Wieland through a series of interactions, including messing about with cassette tapes, a bit of karaoke and a slab of a puppet called Marble, complete with purple hair, googlie eyes and a wry way of looking at the world. There’s also a rendition of Diana Ross’s anthemic “It’s My House” and a wee bit of Shakespeare. A mixed bag, you might say, but that’s what basements are for, accumulating the flotsam and jetsam of people, cultures, time and space. It takes an artist to look at the mélange and think, “There’s something there.”

A pile of random cassette tapes on a blue shag carpet.
The Marble in the Basement is an exhibit with a fascinating history. Installation detail, Hazel Meyer, 2024, Richmond Art Gallery, courtesy of the artist. Photo by Michael Love.

The Marble in the Basement had some rather curious beginnings with Meyer meeting a woman named Jane Rowland, who was living in the house that had formerly been the home of Canadian artist Wieland.

Known mostly for her experimental films, Wieland started her career as a painter in Toronto. After moving to New York in the heady period of the late ’60s and early ’70s, the mass movements of the time (feminism, environmentalism) found their way into her work. But the political climate of the United States eventually became a little too much, and Wieland returned to Toronto, where her solo exhibition True Patriot Love at the National Gallery was the first-ever solo show of a living Canadian female artist in 1971. Wieland died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1998.

Rowland had purchased Wieland’s old house, originally with the intent to use it as a studio, but she ended up making it her full-time residence. The house has remnant items left over from its previous owner, including slabs of marble in the basement.

Meyer had experienced a seismic childhood encounter with Wieland when she saw her large-scale fabric artwork Reason over Passion (1968). That work took impetus from a famous quote from Pierre Trudeau but may have been even more influenced by a fight that Trudeau and his former wife Margaret had had that resulted in a piece of Wieland’s artwork (gifted to the PM) getting torn to shreds.

A ceiling lamp made of beige and yellow plastic glows in the dark, with what appears to be popcorn strings draped on it.
The Marble in the Basement is ‘suffused with warmth and affection.’ Installation detail, Hazel Meyer, 2024, Richmond Art Gallery, courtesy of the artist. Photo by Michael Love.

Rowland got in touch with Meyer about her work Raisins over Passion and invited her over to tour the house. The rest is history, well, sort of. All of this is related by Meyer, read in storybook fashion, as she explains how Rowland came to offer her Wieland’s leftover marble that was taking up space in the basement. In short, there are a great many serendipities at work, all of them finding a home in the imagined basement of Meyer’s creation.

As gallery director Shaun Dacey noted at the opening-night performance, Richmond doesn’t have any basements, since it’s built on landfill, but in The Marble in the Basement it’s all there. The experience is a little akin to the hero’s journey, wherein the seeker must descend into the underworld, risking everything in their quest, and return home again, forever changed.

The shambolic quality of the show was buoyed by the charm and playfulness of the artist herself, dressed in a ball cap and a green sweatsuit. There is here the risk of presenting art that seems too insular and quirky in its references. An insider appeal, even if it’s not meant to push away the general populace, can have that effect.

Instead, The Marble in the Basement is so suffused with genuine warmth and affection that it opens up for anyone. On my first visit to the gallery, a family was taking in the show. While his parents weren’t looking, a young kid immediately laid hands on some of the elements in the installation, an indication that preciousness preserved for art was not happening in this particular basement.

The Marble in the Basement runs until June 30 at the Richmond Art Gallery.  [Tyee]

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