San Francisco

Margaret Kilgallen

At once sweet and dry, nostalgic and ironic, Margaret Kilgallen’s installations of images and text are like some kind of magic elixir swigged from a bottle passed around a hobo’s campfire. Painted directly on the gallery walls or on recycled bits of this and that—wood, cardboard, rusty metal type trays—her pieces often have an appealingly weathered quality. This aura of age is reinforced by her use of elaborately decorative typefaces popular a century ago. Evoking the accidental poetry of roadside signs, words—such as “salt,” “bail,” or “liquors”—appear either alone or in salon-style clusters of paintings.

Over and over, in images rendered in an idiosyncratic yet attractive palette of muted golds and grays, minty greens and rusty ochres, Kilgallen alludes to the irregular, highly improvisatory), life of drifters and grifters, carne barkers and itinerant musicians (possibly as a metaphor for the marginalized yet spunky life of younger artists in the ’90s). Throughout this installation, she made reference to one figure in particular: Matokie Slaughter, a female banjo player whose career peaked in the ’40s. Slaughter’s name, initials, and iconic silhouette—hair in pigtails; banjo in one hand, cigarette in the other—were repeated again and again, in images ranging in scale from the size of a playing card to that of a boxcar. Her surname was bannered impressively across the wall of the first room, and her reclining body, some forty feet long, had been painted the length of the second, larger gallery, an enigmatic smile on her stylized lips. The word “flipping”—hobo slang for riding the rails— floated above and around her, lettered in almost unread-ably elaborate characters. Behind her head, like a thought balloon, were the words “slow as molasses”—a reference, maybe, to the kind of freight train that passes through the sleepy little towns named in smaller paintings that appeared on an adjacent wall: Salinas, Roseville, Guadalupe, San Lucas. Other words, combined at times with silhouettes of trees or single figures, seemed to have been chosen solely for the pleasure of their sound or appearance, such as “coup,” “lush,” “speed,” or “see.”

There is something utterly American about the freedom and adventure hobo life represents: jumping freight trains, drinking around campfires, writing your name on the sides of boxcars. Still, like a sideshow attraction, such an existence sounds way better than it is in reality. Though Matokie Slaughter was a real person, in Kilgallen’s hands she becomes a mythical figure—literally larger than life, a female cross between Paul Bunyan and Neal Cassady. Kilgallen’s simplified painting style may slyly encourage this kind of flattened, faintly sentimental reading, but it also pokes fun at it, reminding us that the stories we make up about the past are never an adequate substitute for the truth about who we are and how we got here. Still, identifying with a figure like Slaughter doesn’t seem so bad. In times like these, the unencumbered imagination she represents is a useful and powerful attribute.

Maria Porges