If someone were to draw her, it would have to be in flowy Indian ink, everything moving: the line around her mouth, her ruddy curls, the way she jumps on her skateboard, her surfboard and rides those waves. Rank, agile, always with a keen eye for what is happening around her.
That’s Margaret Kilgallen – an American artist who broke into a bud. She was only 33 when deadly metastases were diagnosed. She refused chemotherapy because she was pregnant. She died three weeks after the birth of her daughter, in 2001. She had just completed her MFA at Stanford, the first solos – including a large one at Deitch Projects in New York – were over and together with her husband she made in San Francisco name as golden graffiti duo. Trained as a typographer and book restorer, Kilgallen painted, drew and hammered with everything she could find on the street. Cardboard, linen, textiles, scrap, book paper, wood, cassette tapes served as the substrate, but also walls, skateboards, trains, water towers and parking meters.
The Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht now has an overview of her work, which looks as if it is brand new and contemporary. It is the first museum solo after Kilgallen’s death and the first time her work is shown in Europe. You don’t understand why it took so insanely long.
Kilgallen settled in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1990s. In this neighborhood, populated by Hispanics, almost everyone, forced by poverty, did everything themselves and everything by hand: painting murals, signboards, cars. A craft and folk art flourished here, which Kilgallen, fascinated as she was by naive art, amateur typography and folkloric motifs, absorbed herself.
That’s where the beauty is is the name of the exhibition that traveled from America. Beauty, according to Kilgallen, can be found in the most unexpected places, but above all in the human hand. In a rare interview just before her death, she said: “I like to see the hand of people in the world; I don’t care where. In my own work I also do everything by hand. I don’t project or use mechanical things, because even though I spend a lot of time perfecting my lines and my handwriting, my hand will always be imperfect, because it is human. From a distance, the line may look straight, but when you get closer, you always see the wavering. And I think that’s where the beauty lies.”
On the second floor of the Bonnefanten, a lively, grim and humorous panorama unfolds of firm line drawings, graffiti-like tags, word-playing text works, photos, crackling murals and a room-filling labyrinthine installation (Main Drag, 2001). The often similar figures in Kilgallen’s work are pronounced yet flat, without perspective: with large breasts, enormous lips, huge bikini bottoms and pumped-up torsos. They chatter, play banjo, walk arm in arm (staring at a dog on flat feet), punch each other or jump on the surfboard. Their outlines are bold, sometimes feather light, and so beautifully struck that it seems as if you can pick up the person from the paper. There are many trees and leaves: not as you see them around you, but as graceful, cut-out shapes. They are strong, decorative elements that can be used all the time next to, under or above another work.
This is also so powerful about Kilgallen’s work: it shows itself again and again in a different constellation, because letters, symbols and characters can be moved around to your heart’s content. And every time, everything just takes on a different meaning, because the context changes. A striking number of strong women appear in Kilgallen’s ensembles, but also forgotten heroines, such as the clawhammer banjo player Matokie Slaughter. First and last name of the banjo virtuoso appear on tags, as a signature and also in a gigantic mural made up of only letters: SLAUGHTER (1997). On a blood-red background, dark yellow letters draw you in. The letters seem to have been plucked from a shop sign in an old western. It’s hard and beautiful work, with a lot of associations of violence and murder. It’s sharp yet wobbly because if you look closely you can see the hand of the maker at work trying to approach perfection.