talking to all the smartest people in the world
A chat with Margaux Williamson at Frith Street Gallery, London, by Joanna Pocock.
One of the last things Margaux Williamson asks before we go our separate ways is whether she should wear heels tonight.
“Not super high heels,” she corrects herself. “Boots with a bit of a heel. Or should I wear my Keds?” she asks looking down at her orange-clad feet.
“Boots,” I reply.
“And a dress?”
“Yes, go for the dress. It’s a big night for you,” I say as if she is someone I have known for years.
I have come to Frith Street Gallery to interview Margaux Williamson about her work. She has a talent for throwing questions back at you and going round in verbal and mental circles that lead to unexpected places. This is less of an interview and more of a ping-pong match played with several balls at once. My notebook, in which I have been scribbling our exchange, is full of sentences that trail off only to lead to a completely different idea.
I start by asking her about how she crosses so many boundaries. The artist otherwise known as Margaux in Sheila Heti’s ‘novel from life’, “How Should A Person Be?” makes films, performs, writes film reviews and manifestos, but mostly nowadays she paints. This crossing of genres is integral to her trajectory as an artist: she spent a decade painting solidly, concentratedly. These paintings “became windows offering more space, a way out.” After these ten years of painting solidly, she felt she got somewhere “with her hands and in her mind”. This freed her up to experiment with other media and allowed her to make more sense and reposition herself. After her return to painting she “felt so much smarter”. She began answering an important question: How do you get the limitless depth of painting while allowing it to be a concrete object. Tying together these two opposing forces became for Williamson a “challenge and a pleasure”.
This distinction between her hands and her mind is one she makes frequently. I interpret her hands as a metonymy for her craft and her instinct. Williamson’s are those of an artist who can take the most mundane object – a banana, a sofa, a door, a tree, a painting we have seen dozens of times – and defamiliarize it.
This deftness is apparent in one of the works on show here, I thought I saw the whole universe (Scarlett Johansson in Versace), in which the actress’s sequined torso is refigured in oil on canvas as the night sky. This piece is both Blake’s world in a grain of sand and Doctor Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who. We stand in front of it together and gaze at the black and white, star-like surface, the thin arms, the incandescence that emanates from within the paint itself. Williamson tells me that making this one was like “finding an equation”. By tethering her ideas to the real world, she can go deeper, she says. The idea of our world being overseen by a night sky, populated by both celebrities and celestial bodies is somehow very perceptive and very much of the moment. And most importantly, it is a very beautiful object, which does not rely on irony or artifice to create its many levels of meaning. Williamson says of her paintings that they are “honest, straight up, so simple and direct.” I would add the qualifier, “deceptively”. Accessing simplicity is one of the most difficult things to pull off.
Williamson’s recent show at the Mulherin + Polard gallery in New York consisted of a suite of forty-six paintings shown under the title I Could See Everything, with an accompanying book. These pieces range from small intimate canvases less than a foot square to large, wall-sized pieces. Her palette tends towards earthy tones and ochres as if she is commanding the ingredients under our very feet. Five works from the New York show are in London for the Frith Street Gallery summer show. I ask her how she and the show’s curator Ann Marie Peña extricated them from such a seamless body of work. Williamson trusted Peña to choose the pieces. She approached this recontextualisation as a way of looking at her paintings afresh.
Williamson’s work is accessible. She is keen to be inclusive. “Art is about communication,” she tells me. “You don’t need to be in art, or academia or the commercial world to get it. It’s not about dumbing down; it’s about talking to all the smartest people in the world.” It’s funny she should use that analogy as I feel her work is a constant dialogue between herself, her audience and all the painters whose work she draws from.
“It’s like you are having a great conversation with Edouard Manet, Gerhardt Richter, Leon Golub, Philip Guston…. But unlike so many artists you are open about crediting them. I like this.”
“That’s such a nice thing to say,” she smiles.
One of her paintings, sadly not in the London show, We painted the women and children first (Gerhard Richter’s painting Dead) is a version of the well-known Richter work: a head, horizontal, a black slash across its white throat. Williamson’s however is less like a painted photograph and more like a painted painting. And with the addition of her title she repositions it – as a woman and feminist living in the world now. It is not a critique of the great German artist, but a riposte. He may have painted women, like so many other painters through the centuries, but what about saving them? There is a limit to art, Williamson seems to be saying. The use of the plural pronoun doesn’t let Williamson off the hook either. If there is culpability, she is the first to hold up her hand. There is an honesty at work here, which Williamson sums up by saying she doesn’t mind being “so open that she gets dirty.”
As a writer, I can’t help but comment on the titles of her paintings. They are like short stories, I tell her. It is as if the titles and the paintings function like twin spotlights illuminating the same subject only from different angles.
“You’ve given me goose bumps,” she laughs.
The titles from the works in this show only illustrate my point:
I made that same drawing too
They blamed the devil for everything
Study (living room)
I could see everything
I thought I saw the whole universe (Scarlett Johansson in Versace)
Another piece that isn’t in this show has the intriguing title: We loved the world and the things in the world. It is a portrait of a young woman crying. The woman looks like Williamson but it might not be. I find it moving that the title is written in the past tense. The loss has already been felt. The world has gone. Is it about climate change, species disappearing or perhaps a woman simply getting older and losing parts of herself? Williamson says she wrote many of her titles in the past tense without being aware of it until well after the fact. “My intuition is smarter than other bits. But I’ve learned to combine them,” she says. “Art is equal parts intuition, craft and conceptual.”
I ask Williamson about how her paintings might function like sentences in a longer narrative.
“Not really a narrative,” she says. “I am more of a map-maker.”
Her paintings are dots on a map. They are not linear as in a conventional story, but exist simultaneously in space and time and yet are utterly distinct places, exactly like destinations on a map.
“My paintings are so helpful, they are like little arrows,” she says thoughtfully. And I know what she means. They point towards a life, a space, a place outside of themselves whilst simultaneously existing as immovable objects and documents of her hand and mind in the moment she made them.
She needs to get ready for the private view. We say goodbye and I walk around the gallery making notes. After a few minutes, Williamson reappears in her boots and a black dress.
“That dress is perfect,” I say.
“It’s shiny like Scarlett’s,” I tell her. “You are wearing one of your paintings.”
She laughs and turns away to get ready for the night ahead. She is an artist who wears her work well.
Margaux Williamson is one of four artists, along with Fiona Banner, Mohamed Bourouissa and Victor Man, in Mirror, the Frith Street Gallery’s summer show in London.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joanna Pocock is a Canadian writer living in London. She contributes film, literature and art reviews to various online magazines and writes fiction. This is her second piece for 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 14th, 2014.