Margaux Williamson: Interiors

January 21 - April 30, 2023

Organized and circulated by McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Guest Curated by Jessica Bradley

Margaux Williamson has said that painting can be a place to consider what is real and what has value. Such consideration leads her to make images unconstrained by the dictates of a preconceived composition and instead she builds progressively with details that stay in the mind. In her studio—an unobtrusive garage behind her house on a downtown Toronto side street—she yields to the slow process demanded by large oil paintings, constructing images that, like thoughts, unfold organically. The interiors that have become a dominant theme in her recent work are both literal spaces, somewhere comfortably familiar, and places of imaginative interiority where her inanimate subjects are brought under the spell of her anarchic treatment of space.

An assortment of food and objects left overnight on the kitchen table (such as in At night I painted in the kitchen [2013]), or the light catching the rim of a glass, a box of discarded papers in the corner, or the glow of a laptop screen, all are given equal value and can seem to exist autonomously. The expanses of undifferentiated space she often leaves around these points of focus are an invitation to look more closely; the banal realities of these compositions are presented as worthy of exploration and are liberated from conventional hierarchies. There is a frankness to her work that enlivens her canvases as fields of inquiry and a spaciousness that gives us licence to rove around details that become anchors in a field of possibilities.

An uncanny temporal element also inhabits the spaces Williamson creates. Objects are seen in fading light or emerging from darkness in dense strokes of paint that describe the intangibility of a moment. She makes her paintings with a fluidity that presents multiple and simultaneous relationships, as in collage. For example, in Bathtub (2020) it appears the water has been left running by the person who recently washed a T-shirt that hangs in midair, atonce beside and behind the tiled backsplash of the tub. Veering off to the left is a wall with wooden wainscotting. Are we in another room, or perhaps this is a backyard fence? A painting within the painting hangs here: a watery seascape with a battleship bombardment in progress, a drama from another time and place. Angled fluorescent lighting presses down, condensing the lines of a story that is familiarly domestic yet entirely open to our imagination. For Williamson the brush stroke, the act of putting paint on canvas, anticipates both figuration and abstraction: the depiction of real objects situated in the fluid pictorial space and time unique to her work.

Over the past several years, painting has become her principal occupation, but Williamson also writes prolifically and has made videos and performances. Her community includes writers, artists, and musicians with whom she has collaborated, notably on her 2008 feature-length video, Teenager Hamlet, which captures the existential questioning and curiosity of young urban friends thinking through their experience of the world, and on various cultural initiatives with writer Sheila Heti. Writing has been her constant companion, and though writing and painting offer parallel paths to meaning, for her they are neither interchangeable nor ultimately substitutes for each other. Rather, writing accompanies her image making, offering another place for reflection and inspiration.

Williamson’s painting has evolved through long rhythms; her bodies of work are produced over years interspersed with pauses, often for as many years. During interludes when she is not painting, Williamson builds files the way a writer might, with phrases, lists, and dream fragments written on scraps of paper. To these text sketches, as she calls them, she adds photographs, pictures torn from magazines, illustrations of artworks from various periods, and drawings. These ephemera, as impermanent as thoughts that come and go, await an undetermined future as they accumulate. Indeed, pages with notes appear everywhere in her recent paintings, taped to the wall and stacked on tables, as if to acknowledge another way of understanding and being in the world. A painting may emerge from such collected thoughts as readily as from photographs of light in a room or the items on her tables.

Painting is invention, the opportunity to make visible, to choose or to cast aside. And Williamson’s art carries implicitly within that invention histories of painting, whether in the way her works can recall the decorative surfaces of an Édouard Vuillard interior or the deft brushwork of Delacroix and Manet. Her images of hands resemble the awkwardly outsize mitts painted by Philip Guston, and there is a collision of depth and nearness in her work that echoes Matisse, as do the patterned carpets and fabrics she favours. Williamson’s work resides in the real world of here and now without allegiance to realism, and this, after all, is what painting can achieve: a way of seeing reality anew, a way of considering its simultaneous familiarity and strangeness.

– Jessica Bradley


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