Aspen Art Museum Presents Margaret Kilgallen: That’s where the beauty is.

by Agathe Pinard

Margaret Kilgallen,  Untitled , (2000) Acrylic on canvas, 26 1/2 x 33 in (67.3 x 83.8 cm).  Courtesy the artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco

Margaret Kilgallen, Untitled, (2000) Acrylic on canvas, 26 1/2 x 33 in (67.3 x 83.8 cm).

Courtesy the artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco

Margaret Kilgallen was born in 1967 in Washington D.C. She was a painter and a graffiti artist living a bohemian lifestyle, she could be found surfing a longboard on a beach south of San Francisco, collecting old books or playing banjo. Early on she developed a fascination for lettering and printing techniques as well as southwest and Mexican artists. Her work shows a strong influence from those artists as well as the folk art from whom she borrowed a warm color palette and bold letters.

Through her work Kilgallen explored her own inspirations: subculture, the lives of women who lived in the margin and nature. She was going against the current, against the mainstream.

18 years after she passed away from breast cancer, the Aspen Art Museum is honoring the Bay Area artist with an exhibition of her key works alongside never-before-seen works, examining her roots in printmaking, American and Non-Western folk history, and feminist strategies of representation. The exhibition is titled after this extract from an interview she gave to Art21: “I don’t project or use anything mechanical, because even though I do spend a lot of time trying to perfect my line work and my hand, my hand will always be imperfect because it’s human. And I think it’s the part that’s off that’s interesting, that even if I’m doing really big letters, and I spend a lot of time going over the line and over the line and trying to make it straight, I’ll never be able to make it straight. From a distance, it might look straight, but when you get close up, you can always see the line waver. And I think that’s where the beauty is.

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We were fortunate enough to have a moment with AAM Senior Curator Courtenay Finn, who curated the exhibition in consultation with Heidi Zuckerman, CEO and Director of Aspen Art Museum.

What was the process like of curating this exhibition, how did you pick the pieces and what was your intention with this posthumous retrospective?

As the research around Kilgallen’s work developed, I decided to use her exhibition history as a chronological tool. I formulated the checklist for the AAM’s show from her pivotal and important exhibitions—both group and solo—to start with her first solo show at the Drawing Center in 1997 and end with her last installation, Main Drag (2001), which was created for the ICA Philadelphia’s group exhibition East Meets West: Folk and Fantasy from the Coasts. The exhibition also includes works made during her time working as a book conservator at the San Francisco Public Library, her first print edition with Berkeley’s Paulson Press (now Paulson Fontaine Press), and a piece saved from her large-scale commissioned installation in the parking garage as part of Made in California: Art, Image, and Identity at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

I wanted the exhibition to trace both the development of her work over time, revealing her tendency to reuse pieces and aspects of her installations in different forms, while also showing changes in scale, technique, and material. Examining Kilgallen’s roots in the histories of printmaking, typography, American and Non-Western folk history and folklore, I wanted the collection of works to illustrate her belief in a direct connection between art and life, and her commitment to scratching against the larger grain of culture to give space for alternative stories.

Kilgallen fervently believed that women should be more visible within the visual landscape and was committed to inspiring a younger generation of women. She wanted her work to “change the emphasis on what’s important when looking at a woman.” The act of reclaiming space for women is especially timely in today’s sociopolitical climate, and Kilgallen’s evocation of women as strong and multifaceted offers a poignant reminder that diverse adventures, narratives, and ways of being are possible.

Kilgallen had much respect for self-expression through craftsmanship, could you explain the importance of hand making things in a world where everything is now massively and mechanically produced?

When Kilgallen moved to San Fransciso in 1989 it was right at the height of the dot.com boom, where technology and development were irrevocably changing the landscape of San Francisco. In her Art21 interview given in 2001, she talks about how confounding it is that people see graffiti and street art as ugly or a nuisance without investigating or considering the barrage of advertising in public space. One is an expression of an individual while the other’s intent is commerce. Kilgallen’s respect for the mark of the hand, be it a train tag, a public mural, or a hand painted sign, acknowledges the importance of what it means to make a mark on the world. We live in a world bombarded by visual information and layered with images, many of which are tied to commercialism and capitalism. For me, the importance of the handmade in today’s commercial world is that it reminds us that there is a person behind the work. It advocates for a quality of time, celebrating the impact that can come from hard work, while also reminding us of the inherent joy that comes from being present, alive, and expressive.  

The exhibition is titled 'that's where the beauty is' in reference to an interview Kilgallen gave where she was talking about how beauty actually lies in imperfection. What's your interpretation of the title? 

Kilgallen said, “I like to see people’s hand in the world, anywhere in the world; it doesn’t matter to me where it is. And in my own work, I do everything by hand. I don’t project or use anything mechanical, because even though I do spend a lot of time trying to perfect my line work and my hand, my hand will always

be imperfect because it’s human. And I think it’s the part that’s off that’s interesting, that even if I’m doing really big letters, and I spend a lot of time going over the line and over the line and trying to make it straight, I’ll never be able to make it straight. From a distance, it might look straight, but when you get close up, you can always see the line waver. And I think that’s where the beauty is.”

My interpretation of the title is rooted in this idea that beauty and joy can be found outside mainstream narratives and definitions. There is more than just one way to exist in the world, to make one’s mark, and to live. In Kilgallen’s work we are reminded that there is beauty to found in imperfection, in the seemingly ordinary, and in the everyday. In her hands a found piece of wood becomes a canvas, a torn piece of paper just the beginning of a new story. Kilgallen’s work asks us to look closer, and once we do, a whole new world of possibility has suddenly opened up.  

Can you talk about Mission School, the art movement that started in the early 90's in the Mission district of San Francisco and which Kilgallen was a central figure of?

The term Mission School was first used by Glen Helfand in 2002 to describe a common thread occurring between artists working in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late nineties. Focusing on the use of found objects and materials, street art, and an embrace of folk and craft techniques, many of the artists involved have been internationally recognized and celebrated. Yet as with any movement or designated community, the artists within it also openly discuss that the Mission School itself wasn’t limited to just the neighborhood of the Mission District and included a more diverse and widespread community than is often included within the larger narrative. In terms of Kilgallen, she was intimately engaged within the larger community of artists working around her, not to mention very active within the larger fabric of the city itself. For example, Kilgallen participated in a series of community-based public art projects, including working with other artists’ works to create new handmade store signage for Andy’s Locker and Mail Services with the Luggage Store Gallery/509 Cultural Center, San Francisco.

Kilgallen, like the many others working around her, worked both inside and outside, making her work accessible to larger audiences. She would create site-specific pieces for exhibitions, but also outside in public space, directly onto train cars, and for friends and colleagues. She used the bottoms of skateboards, made T-shirts, drew record albums, and created her own zines and artist books, believing that all modes of expression and dissemination were equally important.

Kilgallen’s work is also intrinsically and undoubtedly influenced by the city of San Francisco, and the larger California landscape at large, yet what stands out within her work is how she created her own culture of characters, symbols, and a means of storytelling that celebrated ordinary people with dignity.

Is there anything else you feel the audience should know about this exhibit?

In addition to the exhibition, the AAM is producing a fully illustrated, comprehensive catalogue of Kilgallen’s work. It will include full-color images of artworks, archival images of previous exhibitions and installations, as well as newly commissioned essays on her work. Filled with new imagery, ephemera, and scholarship, the publication will provide a comprehensive introduction to this important twentieth-century artist, especially for those coming to her work for the first time.


Margaret Kilgallen at Aspen Art Museum from January 12 to June 16.

637 E Hyman Ave, Aspen, CO 81611