Margaret Kilgallen: That’s Where the Beauty Is

The cover of Margaret Kilgallen: that's where the beauty is.

MARGARET KILGALLEN WAS BORN IN 1967, landed in San Francisco in 1989, and passed away of cancer in 2001. In that brief window, she occupied the center of an exploding galaxy of young artists including—but by no means limited to—Alicia McCarthy, Ruby Neri, Rigo 23, Bill Daniel, Johanna Jackson, Chris Johanson, and Kilgallen’s husband and frequent collaborator, Barry McGee. The creator of loping installations featuring rebus-like combinations of carnival fonts, graphical trees, and drawings of surfers and strong women, Kilgallen expanded the stylistic and attitudinal vocabulary of her time and place, inspiring viewers and fellow artists with her brash improvisations and romantic, Pippi Longstocking–ish persona. As a recent show at the Aspen Art Museum and an accompanying publication attest, her charisma remains intact.

The catalogue’s authors offer affectionate and appropriately unpretentious appreciations of Kilgallen’s life and work. Jenelle Porter generously situates Kilgallen in the context of her chosen home in the West, linking her drawing practice to her practice of surfing (both activities tracing free-flowing, liquid lines across intimidatingly blank surfaces) and attaching her oeuvre to a robust Bay Area art history known for its funky, diverse, left-wing public-mindedness. She also places Kilgallen in dialogue with two Bay Area natives: Joan Brown, an expressionist painter known for her images of women, and Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, the house graphic designer at the haute-hippie planned community Sea Ranch. Courtenay Finn, meanwhile, delves into Kilgallen’s use of textual elements, unpacking her personal argot of words like kook (an eccentric person) and saro (the title of a ’90s cassette release of old-time music by Matokie Slaughter & The Back Creek Buddies) and drawing connections between Kilgallen’s recurring glyphs and public writings dating from the ancient Sumerians to the Civil War.

Margaret Kilgallen, untitled, ca. 2000, acrylic on paper, 4 1⁄2 × 6 1⁄2". Courtesy the Estate of Margaret Kilgallen and Ratio 3, San Francisco
Margaret Kilgallen, untitled, ca. 2000, acrylic on paper, 4 1⁄2 × 6 1⁄2". Courtesy the Estate of Margaret Kilgallen and Ratio 3, San Francisco

The creative associations spinning from Kilgallen could go in many other directions, too: the penmanship of comic book auteurs the Hernandez Brothers; the feminist collage of Olympia, Washington, artist Nikki McClure; the confessional writings of zine makers like Aaron Cometbus and Dishwasher Pete. Many influences are visible that sadly never had the chance to evolve into subsequent acts, though together they easily launch Kilgallen into the hallowed firmament of American Beatnikism—punk variant. A devotee of trains, hobos, strip signage, and used flannel and chinos, she’s a daughter of Ginsberg and Kerouac, and seeing her work now makes one wonder just how deeply her Beatnik, analog aesthetic has projected into the twenty-first century. Who would be called Kerouacian anymore? Who will be called Kilgallian?