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Human Hand

Photos by Scott GrollerIt is a sad and disconcerting thing to scan a packet of press materials and see the swelling bibliography of an artist born in 1967, full of debut references in all the right publications — The New York Times, The New Yorker, Artforum, Juxtapoz, Flaunt, several exhibition catalogs and a PBS program, among others — interrupted after only four years by an obituary: “Margaret Kilgallen, a San Francisco Artist, 33.” New York Times, July 4, 2001. With the tragedy of Kilgallen’s early death (from breast cancer) in mind, one is inclined to approach her current exhibition at REDCAT with a sense of pathos. The work itself, however, will have none of it. A wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling maelstrom of drawings, paintings, sculptures and found objects, the installation wrenches open the usually subdivided gallery and presents a vibrant alternate universe, rooted in the familiar, but largely independent of time or geographical space. Entering is like stepping into a vaguely recognizable neighborhood, somewhere between Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz, sometime between the 19th century and now. There are women on surfboards, playing banjos, crying, talking and smoking cigarettes; men also surfing, or loitering, or watching the women. There are motels and mechanics and trees and animals and, this being California, signs, signs, and more signs — not the modern, mass-produced variety, but the homey, hand-painted sort, relieved here of the vulgar obligation of actually having to advertise anything. Kilgallen studied letterpress printing in college and worked for nearly a decade as a book conservator, and her fascination with text and typography is one of her work’s most vital qualities. Words spring from nearly every square yard of this exhibition’s wall space: Roseville, Salinas, Dog Day, Verduras, Tree Top, Pearl, Rail, Cheater Five, Free Wheel, Fate. Whether they refer to people, places, music, surfing or nothing in particular but just happened to have caught Kilgallen’s fancy isn’t always clear and ceases to matter: each word, with its own particular sound and shape and dressed in its own snappy font, functions like a discrete burst of energy, animating the entire composition.The work is satisfying in a way that would be easy to characterize, sentimentally, as life-affirming. Like most of the folk traditions from which it draws, however, it’s not exactly death-denying (one of most striking motifs in this show is what looks like a dead seagull with a tree growing out of its belly), so it might be better to say life-embracing. The sprawling abundance of images and objects; the candid, folksy sensibility; the common materials; the absence of art-world affectation; and, above all, the persistent presence of the human hand — that is, Kilgallen’s practiced but decidedly unmechanistic technique — all clearly stem from a passion for the very fabric of the world. This is art that would persist on scraps of anything: canvas, plywood, paper, cardboard, an empty brick wall, the side of a boxcar. It presumes a monumental scale, consuming space with all the fervor of a corporate ad campaign, but addresses itself to each viewer personally, mixing wallet-size paintings into murals, intimate pleasures into sweeping statements. The smaller pieces — mostly portraits and objects painted on bits of board, pages of old books or stitched-together fragments of canvas — are stacked in tight, fastidious clusters, like snapshots on a mother’s living-room wall. (Some clusters are reproductions of former installations; others were arranged by Kilgallen’s husband, the artist Barry McGee, and curator Eungie Joo.) Found objects strewn throughout — a potted succulent on a tiny shelf; a pair of seashells on the windowsill of a fortlike shanty structure floating in the center of the gallery — feel like little personal gifts.This sense of generosity, gratifying as it is in the context of the gallery, is perhaps best seen in the frequency with which Kilgallen took her work into the world, whether in the form of sanctioned murals, community projects, graffiti or train marking. Several examples of the last appear at the end of the show’s beautiful catalog, in a 1997 photo collage, mixed in with the markings, signs and graffiti of other anonymous artists. The page is a heartening document: a testament to the capacity of individual mark-making to humanize urban and industrial space. One of Kilgallen’s images, emblazoned on the lower edge of a boxcar, is a small silhouette of a woman with a banjo (the artist’s own favored instrument) in one hand, a smoking cigarette in the other, hip cocked slightly, gazing coolly toward the front of the train, clearly ready for anything the journey has in store.It’s wonderful to think of this intrepid figure winding her way across the landscape, from Kilgallen’s own San Francisco into the great wide open, long after the artist herself has gone. MARGARET KILGALLEN: In the Sweet Bye & Bye | The Gallery at REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., Los Angeles, (213) 237-2800, www.redcat.org | Through August 21


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