ASPEN — “I have always had an admiration for things that are well made, or not even well made. What you have to make in order to live.” Artist Margaret Kilgallen shared this comment in a 1999 interview with author Eungie Joo for the Hammer Museum. Kilgallen’s affection for how and why things are made is a reflection of her own practice. She made her works completely by hand, without stencils, tape, or projections. Her surfaces include train cars, walls, reused canvases, and discarded book covers. Someone else’s surplus or rejection was her starting point. Kilgallen’s contributions exist within the realms of folk, feminist, and street art, often all at once.
Margaret Kilgallen: that’s where the beauty is, at the Aspen Art Museum, is the artist’s first posthumous museum exhibition and the largest presentation of her work since the 2005 show titled In The Sweet Bye & Bye at REDCAT in Los Angeles. The reuniting of this large body of work feels like several streams converging into a river and spilling over its banks. It is overwhelming, but it is illuminating to see how the artist’s understanding of typography, gained from years as a book conservator and a degree in printmaking, mesh with stories and figures — for instance, in the serif-like rooting of her tree trunks. Most importantly, the exhibition is a significant engagement with and documentation of her visual lexicon and isolated gestures.
Many critics are tempted to describe Kilgallen’s work as nostalgic, but her style does not fall into any one period. The color scheme represents one period and her fonts, whether bold and commercial or kitschy — the latter recalling, say, a carnival in a frontier town — represent another. Nostalgia also implies a selective memory, scrubbed of the negative, which is not what is happening in the artist’s work. Nowhere is this more evident than her constant return to the female figure. The prominent dark lips, lunging posture, columnar bodies, and a blanket of hair are constructed from refined lines that cut through the weathered and worn spaces where she originally created the artworks. The trailing point of a scarf that swoops around a head and fastens under the chin echoes the tips of leaves on a bowing branch, which itself recalls the bend of brow line. While her text drifts and tangles, the woman as narrator remains steadfast.
These women are like Greek goddesses, not physically unique, but each one subtly signaling her story with a pose or tool. For example, the name Fanny, all in caps, rests near images of a swimmer that recall Australian 1912 Olympic champion Sarah “Fanny” Durack who went on to break 12 world records in 6 years, all in a wool bathing suit. The incredible 1940s banjo musician Matokie Slaughter, whose image didn’t make the covers of the albums she was featured on, is portrayed as a female figure holding a banjo. May Rindge lost her Malibu land rights to the construction of the Pacific Coast Highway in a 1923 Supreme Court ruling. She eventually developed and sold 22 miles of ocean front on her own, only to lose it all in the 1929 stock crash. Rindge is shown here as a woman holding a rifle. Kilgallen’s figures are always presented in a public setting, so the gaze is never voyeuristic. We see what the women allow us to see.
Artist Lauren Napolitano (aka PepTalks) grew up in the Bay Area, encountering Kilgallen’s street art in the 1990s. She told Hyperallergic, “Margaret’s work, for me, was like a door just flung open,” noting that her feminine approach to a folk art style, “really gave me permission to express my own personal vision. She was this beacon of hope that women could succeed and be respected despite being in a male-dominated craft.”
In Kilgallen’s 2001 interview for Art 21 on PBS she said, “I often feel like so much emphasis is put on how beautiful you are and how thin you are and not a lot of emphasis is put on what you can do and how smart you are. I would like to change the emphasis of what’s important when looking at a woman.” The tension in Kilgallen’s art is not rooted in the contrast between old and new or between form and content. Through subtle gestures she presses us to acknowledge our superficial judgements, specifically of women, and compels us all to see more deeply.
Margaret Kilgallen: that’s where the beauty is continues at the Aspen Art Museum (637 East Hyman Avenue, Aspen, Colorado) through June 9. It will later be shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland from January 24 to May 17, 2020. The exhibition was curated by former AAM Senior Curator Courtenay Finn in consultation with Heidi Zuckerman, CEO & Director of AAM.