The Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland Jan. 31 will present an exhibition highlighting major themes from the far-reaching work of the late artist Margaret Kilgallen.

The San Francisco Bay Area artist, who died at age 33 in 2001, developed a handmade aesthetic and aimed to illustrate how inspiration and empowerment can bloom. She worked to highlight those who lived in the margins, as well challenged traditional gender roles through her work.

The show is the artist’s largest presentation to date, featuring paintings, prints, drawings and more.

The exhibit “that’s where the beauty is.” will open with a free party from 6 to 9 p.m. at the museum, with an exclusive preview for moCa members from 4 to 6.

Canvas caught up with Courtenay Finn, chief curator at moCa, about Kilgallen’s work and legacy, as well as the experience of recreating some of the artist’s installations and presentations.

An exhibition featuring work from the late artist Margaret Kilgallen will be on view from Jan. 31 to May 17. Why did moCa pursue this particular artist and exhibition?

Margaret Kilgallen’s exhibition “that’s where the beauty is.” is an exhibition that I organized for the Aspen Art Museum, where it was on view from Jan. 11 to June 16, 2019. It is her first posthumous museum exhibition, and the largest presentation of her work to date since the 2005 show, “In the Sweet Bye & Bye,” at REDCAT in Los Angeles.

I first learned about her work while I was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art and was struck by her embrace of storytelling and her use of material. In particular, I loved how she would reuse works, creating new installations from her paintings and drawings, as if creating her own language. I began to research her exhibition history, following specific works as they made appearances in different installations, traveling from San Francisco to New York to Tokyo, and back.

As I was thinking about shows I wanted to see in the world, it felt important and timely to work on a large-scale survey of Kilgallen’s and share her practice with a larger audience. I wanted to ensure that new generations continue to have the opportunity to engage and learn from her work, just the way I did.

“Surfer Girl,” (1990) by Margaret Kilgallen. Acrylic on wood, 14 x 15 1/2 x 1 3/4 inches (35.56 x 39.37 x 4.45 cm). Collection of Marialidia Marcotulli. | Photo / Tony Prikryl

How would you explain Kilgallen’s style and aesthetic to someone who may be unfamiliar with her?

Kilgallen received her Bachelor of Arts in printmaking and studio art from Colorado College in 1989, where she explored woodcut, letterpress and etching, embracing printmaking’s rich history of communication with both image and type. After college, she moved to San Francisco, where she was influenced by the city’s hand-painted shop signs, colorful murals and handcrafted modes of advertising. She worked as a book conservator at the San Francisco Public Library, studying bookbinding, traditional sign-painting techniques, papermaking and typography. All of these experiences are evident within her work, which takes the form of large-scale painted murals, drawings on old book pages and paintings on found material.

She also created stickers, made T-shirts, drew record albums and created her own zines and artist books, believing all modes of expression and dissemination were equally important. At the core of Kilgallen’s work was the belief that beauty can be found in the humblest of places and that everything should be made by hand, scaled in relation to the human body.

Installation view: “that’s where the beauty is.” by Margaret Kilgallen. Aspen Art Museum, 2019. | Photo / Tony Prikryl

Do you have a favorite piece from the exhibition?

This is such a hard question as there are so many works in the show that I love. If I had to pick just one, I would say that a favorite Kilgallen work of mine is an untitled piece from 2000 that is now in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It is incredibly large – it measures over 24 feet wide – and is portrait of a man and a woman. The man stands dejectedly forward, his brow furrowed and his eyes meeting ours, while the woman is looking away, her gaze focused on the rest of the canvas – large swatches of blocked color and a single tree. I like to think of the couple in the canvas as Kilgallen and her husband and partner Barry McGee, an incredible artist in his own right. 

“POP,” (1997) by Margaret Kilgallen. Acrylic on plywood, 110 x 48 x 1 3/4 inches (279.4 x 121.92 x 4.45 cm). Private collection. | Photo / Tony Prikryl

Working closely with Kilgallen’s estate on the exhibition, you recreated versions of the artist’s pivotal installations and presentations. Tell me about what that entailed and what you learned in the process.

I decided to use Kilgallen’s exhibition history as a chronological tool to help guide the audience through the exhibition. The exciting part of moCa’s presentation of “that’s where the beauty is.” is that I am able to expand the show and add in more work than what was on view in Aspen.

I added a recreation of “SLAUGHTER” (1996), a mural that Kilgallen originally painted in her 1996 two-person exhibition with Phillip Ross at Gallery 16 in San Francisco. This work will greet viewers as they come up moCa’s monumental staircase. The show goes on to include works from her first solo show at The Drawing Center (1997), her first museum exhibition, “Hammer Projects: Margaret Kilgallen” (2001), and her final installation “Main Drag” (2001) created for the exhibition “East Meets West” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia.

Working closely with the estate, it was incredible to see how she would rehang and reuse works in various installations. One great example is Kilgallen’s work “Untitled (Pride)” (ca.1999), which makes an appearance in her show “To Friend and Foe” at Deitch Projects in New York, but she also includes it in her MFA show at Stanford in 2001. By diving into her exhibition history, I learned so much about her working practice and how she developed her own cast of characters, symbols and means of storytelling.

“Untitled (Cardiff),” (1999) by Margaret Kilgallen. Acrylic on wooden panels, overall dimensions: 31 x 19 1/2 inches (78.74 x 49.53 cm). Collection of Jeffrey Deitch. | Photo / Tony Prikryl

Will there be any programming to come surrounding the exhibition? What and when?

This season our programming and the exhibition itself are exploring an essential question: “How do we mark our communities?” Kilgallen fervently believed women should be more visible within the visual landscape and was committed to inspiring a younger generation of women. She wanted her work to “change the emphasis on what’s important when looking at a woman,” and was steadfast in her celebration of the achievements and beauty of women who had been forgotten, ignored or never fully recognized. With that in mind we are going to present an International Womxn’s Day discussion on visibility within the arts, hosting a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon that will help address the gender imbalance on the website, and partner with the (Cleveland Institute of Art’s) Cinematheque on a screening of the acclaimed 2008 documentary “Beautiful Losers,” which features Kilgallen. These are just some of the programs that we are working on to engage the show around the essential question and offer exciting entry points into her work.

The exhibit is on view through May 17.

Installation view: “that’s where the beauty is.,” by Margaret Kilgallen. Aspen Art Museum, 2019. | Photo / Tony Prikryl