Margaret Kilgallen: Progenitor of The Mission School

Margaret Kilgallen, Untitled, c. 2000, Acrylic on canvas, 27 x 25 inches. Courtesy Ratio 3, San Francisco.

The Margaret Kilgallen show at Ratio 3 in San Francisco brings together over three dozen small works on paper and a handful of larger canvas pieces, all belonging to the late artist’s estate. An artist best remembered for a striking impression delivered with a duality of color and scale, the works at Ratio 3 are much more quiet, intimate, and candid. Some appear like private doodles, and others like focused studies for larger works, such as collections of lips or shoes punctuating a few small pages. All are drawn with her characteristic calligraphic lines in boldly colored acrylic.

Kilgallen—who died in 2001 at the age of 33—along with fellow artists Barry McGee (her husband and collaborator), Chris Johanson, Clare Rojas, Rigo 23 and several others have earned the movement moniker of The Bay Area Mission School, referring to the Mission District in San Francisco where many of them drew inspiration and lived or worked. The style is a reflection of low-tech, subversive art making, and relies on the inclusion of found objects, graffiti, and folk art quotations. It refers to a style that arose in the early 90s, but was not coined until 2002.

More after the jump!  —Nadiah Fellah, San Francisco contributor 

Installation views, Margaret Kilgallen, Summer / Selections, 2011, Ratio 3, San Francisco.

Ratio 3’s main gallery is filled with several small works on found paper, all mounted in minimal wooden frames. They convey Kilgallen’s talent as a designer and a draughtswoman. The abstracted lines indicating waves, and the contours of trees and visages, stand on their own as idiosyncratic motifs, simple yet true to Kilgallen’s whimsical style. The extracted book pages and other found paper she chose to use succeed in juxtaposing this talent with an equally unique backdrop. Many of the pages retain the rough, time-darkened edges from being torn out of larger volumes. On one of the larger sheets, possibly from an immemorial dictionary or atlas, Kilgallen has simply painted an assemblage of precisely-spaced red dots, around which the edges of the faded page have created a perfect vignette.

Margaret Kilgallen, Untitled, c. 2000 | Acrylic on paper, 21 x 14 inches. Courtesy Ratio 3, San Francisco.

I was also drawn to the works in which Kilgallen’s figures break the edges of the page, alluding to a missing continuation of a narrative, lurking just beyond the boundaries of what we see. The notion fits perfectly with her favored medium of the torn-out book page, leaving the viewer to wonder if the incomplete scene is the result of its dislodgment from a larger image and its companion exists elsewhere. Her paintings of foliage bring to mind the Victorian practice of pressing leaves and flowers in books, using the tome’s pages to draw out moisture and preserve the ethereal specimens, resulting in a discolored footprint that is left on the contiguous pages.

Margaret Kilgallen, TOP: c. 2000, Acrylic on paper, 5.75 x 8.25 inches. BOTTOM: Untitled, c. 2000, Acrylic on paper, 6.5 x 9 inches. Images courtesy Ratio 3, San Francisco.

Known for working in graffiti (she did so using the street name ‘Meta’), many of the works from Kilgallen’s past shows have incorporated monumental text in folksy fonts that are at the same time dated and timeless. One of the canvas works in the Ratio 3 show incorporates pieces of what looks like her painted lettering, truncated so as to render them unreadable, and patched together with several other pieces of variegated canvas. The patch-work amalgamations attest to a curiosity for form and composition, and a desire to expand the confines of traditional painting.

Margaret Kilgallen’s work is a reminder of a thriving peripheral art scene that exists in the Bay Area, and celebrates the memory of an artist who was a vital part of that scene. She remains an inextricable source of inspiration and admiration today.

Margaret Kilgallen, Untitled, c. 2000 | Acrylic on canvas, 26.5 x 33 inches. Courtesy Ratio 3, San Francisco.

Margaret Kilgallen: Summer / Selections
is on view through August 5th at Ratio 3 Gallery in SF.

Nadiah Fellah is a curatorial assistant at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).


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