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latex on panel, in four joined parts
124 x 90 in. (315 x 228.6 cm.)
Painted in 1999.
Private collection, San Francisco, acquired directly from the artist
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2017
"Picturing the Urban Landscape: City as Studio," ArtReview, April 2023, digital (illustrated).
Hong Kong, K11 MUSEA, City As Studio, March-May 2023, pp. 222-223, no. 1-3 (illustrated).

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Julian Ehrlich
Julian Ehrlich Associate Vice President, Specialist, Head of Post-War to Present Sale

Lot Essay

Executed on a human scale, Margaret Kilgallen’s Untitled pays homage to the most intrinsic facets of American folk culture. Throughout her short career, the artist cited an admiration of “what you have to make in order to live” as the source of her artistic inspiration (M. Kilgallen quoted in E. Joo, In the Sweet Bye and Bye, exh. cat. REDCAT, Los Angeles, 2007, p. 13). In the act of drawing references from the rural margins of society, she preserves an increasingly distant past while elevating the lives of the everyday person. The present work brings the courses of history into the contemporary sphere, unlocking memories of a time in which the mark of hand was more commonplace in day-to-day visuals.

Kilgallen’s stylized figures and lettering are boldly rendered, betraying her past as a librarian and bookbinder. The flatness of her adopted style is immediately familiar due to her fondness of graffiti, commercial signage, and advertising typography. A woman unambiguously depicted in red and white moves across the lower register of the painting, caught in the midst of a leisurely walk. Usages of black and her characteristic crimson arose from perusing 16th century manuscripts that often featured the two colors alongside blue. A minimalistic tree sprouts upwards, its base almost replicating the appearance of a serif.

Despite the stencil-like appearance of the present work, it should be noted that the artist actively avoided utilizing such tools and other forms of technology. During her time in the Bay Area, she found the constant barrage of neon advertising signs and mass consumerism off-putting, and her oeuvre reflects this sensibility. Though one may perceive her paintings as rather uniform from afar, upon closer inspection, the artist’s hand reveals itself through minute variances in paint application. Through this labor intensive process, Kilgallen delivers a reminder that visual culture is a product of both time and human intervention.

Much like the work of WPA artists and Mexican muralists influential to generations of artists in San Francisco, Kilgallen employed a style accessible to the public. She worked in both sanctioned and unsanctioned spaces, oftentimes bringing her work to the outdoors in the form of installations or graffiti. The enormity and legibility of the present work lends itself to this democratic approach to art, while her choice of medium pays homage to depression era scarcity with its recycling of latex house paint and wooden panels. Finishing nails punctuate the magnanimous composition, while the weathered edges allude to its previous life on the walls of an interior, as well as Kilgallen’s resourceful reuse of found materials.

Although the artist is generous with her audience in regards to the straightforward nature of her figuration, her textual references tend to remain rather mysterious. Imposing in their scale, the muted orange and red letters pave their way in and out of the sky, outlined by black and white drop shadows. One line reads ‘Dead’ in reverse, while the other is a bit more elusive. The hand-painted words convey terms meaningful to the artist, alluding to surf spots, train yards, slang, and outdated commercial logos. She cleverly recontextualizes them within this space, adding the memories of her travels to this woman’s experience and immortalizing facets of our linguistic past.

Kilgallen actively sought out imperfection and the grittiness of the human experience. For the artist, it was of the utmost importance to depict her female heroes in the simple act of existing due to society’s inclination to conflate a woman’s value with their conformity to beauty standards. As this unknown woman carries herself through Kilgallen’s world, she contributes to a legacy in which one can simply be appreciated and celebrated for their presence alone.

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