Margaret Kilgallen: that’s where the beauty is

Margaret Kilgallen

Margaret Kilgallen: that’s where the beauty is, on view at moCa Cleveland January 31- May 17, 2020, is a knockout exhibition. Organized by moCa chief curator Courtenay Finn for the Aspen Art Museum (where it debuted in 2019), it is the late artist’s first posthumous museum exhibition.

It’s a delightfully arranged and presented show: the entire experience wraps around you like a charm bracelet. The drawings, paintings and collages are intimate and personal, and have a quiet refinement that stays with you long after you leave, beckoning your return (just in case you missed something). The work charms with the small stories Finn chose to share. No heroic persona gets in the way, and this is possibly the most refreshing feeling one can take away. It is the most comfortable, un-institutional show I have ever experienced at MOCA. It is a fresh breeze.

Margaret Kilgallen, Deep Lowers

Kilgallen’s work is not intimidating or complicated, but it is filled with complexities. Her works are humble and sparse, but she is able to build and grow these tableaus in scale and create escape routes (very literally) to magical spaces: stage sets, Atlantic City boardwalks, forts, secret hideouts where textual passages and signage are equally as amusing and welcoming as her smaller, individual works. She invites you into her work through visual cues. This is beautifully displayed in Deep Lowers, with figures flanking the stylized hand-painted text with a man revealing his six-pack abs, flanked by a determined surfer-girl making her nearby cameo. Kilgallen uses pictographic messages that build and shift content expertly throughout this eye-dazzling show.

Margaret Kilgallen

Kilgallen is the caregiver of these discarded bits of found cardboard, paper and wood, shepherded in a series called Heroines. Her desire is to celebrate women that she finds inspiring—women whom everyone doesn’t already know. She chose people who did small things that, “just hit you in your heart.” Kilgallen illustrated women who were Australian Olympiad swimmers from the ‘40s or old-time female banjo players. She chose these ancestral citizens because she did not want them to go unnoticed, and wanted to be a part of remembering them.

The fruit of these forgotten heroines, and her other seemingly-vintage source materials show no evidence of cell phones or art markets, and come from honest, simple places of sharing and inspiring others. Her random bits are felt, careful, graphically tender and exquisite (like a Matisse contour or an Alice Neel drawing), and she finds this moment of bare essentialism particularly in her drawings of people.

Margaret Kilgallen

These disparate fragments and the sum of all the parts allows much room for viewers to gather meaning from their own carefree assembly process. The modular, graphic cells and her free form compositions welcome viewers to find their own scenarios and interpretations. The worn and well-loved surfaces of her substrates are sanded, sewn (patched together) and have an anonymity that adds to both their familiarity and their curiousness of origin.

The grandeur in her works seems to come from Kilgallen’s sheer joy in making them. She allows us to be companions, assemblers of meaning, and inquisitive connectors of the dots. One has the sense that Kilgallen giggled as she made these works, and some probably broke her heart. Throughout this retrospective, a melancholy and longing resonate, and one feels a slow-down in pace, so you can luxuriate in each move she makes and we get the pleasure of test-driving the visual dictionary of symbols she offers up before us. Margaret Kilgallen gave birth to a baby daughter and sadly passed away shortly after, far too young, and knowing this only adds to the vulnerability and soulfulness of her works. It is in Kilgallen’s modesty that she gives us everything, as her work asks for nothing. Her work so clearly addresses us as human creatures, and as citizens of our own distinct moments, that much of the tragedy going on in the world could take a page from her lasting sentiments and impressions seen in that’s where the beauty is.

The story of Kilgallen’s work (and that of other artists from this San Francisco underground scene) is told in the 2008 documentary, Beautiful Losers, directed by Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard. It’s a must-see, either before or after you visit the exhibition.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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