Ways of Seeing: Margaux Williamson’s Painterly Magic Tricks

My favourite measure of a worthy gallery exhibit, or worthy concert performance, or a film just viewed comes a few days later when, should I still be thinking of it, should I not be able to stop thinking of it, I know I have seen or witnessed something important. Stumbled upon a talisman with magic powers, as it were. If it raises more questions, new thoughts and queries I will definitively give it two thumbs, and maybe eight fingers, up. And so it was when I exited Margaux Williamson’s Interiors retrospective of paintings at Museum London, on display until September 18.

But I couldn’t quite put my finger or either two thumbs on just what was so intriguing: was it Williamson’s playful use of multi-perspectives, play of time in a scene, light, the use of colour or the lack thereof…? Was it the lack of people, or the imprint left behind of people having communed, as we did in the Before-times, pre-Covid days…? Was it all of the above?

This is likely the only exhibition I will ever see where I was introduced to the artist beforehand – in a novel. Williamson is a character in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be. In that auto-fictional book, Heti’s young friends ponder what it is to be an artist, or if they even want to be artists. And so it took me by surprise to see such staggering accomplished work ten years after that book; there’s no sense at all of the questioning angst of the young artists, some of whom make an appearance in Williamson’s 2008 film, Teenage Hamlet. The ghosts of those friends seem to hover in much of Interiors.

We can thank curator Jessica Bradley for putting this eye-opening exhibit together, with a judicious catalogue to boot, originally on display at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection earlier this year and about to travel to other Canadian galleries. But also Andrew Kear, Senior Curator and Head of Collections and Exhibitions at Museum London, for bringing Interiors into our local purview. Kear considers Williamson one of the most thoughtful painters working in Canada today.

“The exhibition is especially relevant as it communicates the strange sense of isolation many of us have felt over the past two years,” he says, “and, at the same time, rejoices in the simple intimacy of everyday spaces.”

True. But on my second visit, I saw new things in these gorgeous images of what is mostly the quotidian: a living room, bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, a local bar, backyard, subjects and settings that shouldn’t rock our boats too much in other words and… well on this viewing I felt that, on my drive home from the museum, I had just left a different country.

In Williamson’s own words these paintings of muddy browns, grays and blacks — with vivid splashes of colour, she omits – uh, such work causing so much disturbance in one’s cognitive sense of order? How so?

We all know that feeling. Returning from visiting a favourite city, or, a foreign destination, we can feel anew. But, wait. These paintings were made in Toronto, not necessarily the most exciting city and… the subjects are things I’m already — we are all — extremely familiar with. It’s not like I’ve just seen Frank Gehry’s Museum of Pop Culture or the Sistine Chapel for the first time. Just what magic spell did Williamson pull off here? I haven’t been a huge fan of contemporary painting for a host of reasons, but now, I am seeing painting afresh. How so?

That’s an understatement: when you enter the gallery with some 30 plus works, your eye, your whole being will be immediately drawn to Fire. Like you are iron, and that is a giant electromagnet. Like that fire is a supernova. Wait. Still not the right simile. A graviton towards a vortex? I forget physics….

Fire, 2021, oil on canvas, 177.8 x 213.4 cm Promised gift of Christine and Andrew W. Dunn McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Question is, how so? And I’m not the only one with this strong a reaction. It’s not just me scratching my head at what Williamson is up to. I ask Seth, Canadian cartoonist extraordinaire, author of Clyde Fans and this year’s recipient of France’s Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres medal – I think we can trust his judgment – what he makes of Williamson’s Interiors show.

“Williamson’s paintings have that inspired quality about them that speaks of mystic revelation. Why is that?” he ponders.

“They are, for the most part, just arrangements of mundane everyday objects? And yet, looking at them one cannot help but feel some layer of “reality” has been peeled back and for a moment another world has been glimpsed. Or more appropriately, this world has been glimpsed. In a brighter, clearer light. Not unlike the simplest classic haiku. Just what is right in front of you. But seen in a flash of lightning.”

Seth and I are on the same page. To find out more, I ask Williamson. I wonder, can she also pull a rabbit out of a hat?

“Ha-ha-ha” she says.

“It’s not my rules, rules of what a painting can allow or not allow. As long as you remember that no one is requiring the laws of seeing. I’m just trying to find the inner logic of the painting.”

There are the large-scale canvases that do command all of your attention, like Fire, Meeting Place or Tree. But why is it I find the very odd and, almost banal, Studio Door, or the petite study Flowers as equals or betters?

Exhibition view of Margaux Williamson: Interiors at Museum London. © Toni Hafkenscheid; Margaux Williamson (born 1976), Bathtub, 2019, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 182.9 cm, Private collection; and Kitchen, 2021, oil on canvas, 160 x 228.6 cm, Collection of Cheryl C. Gottselig QC and Yves Trépanier, Calgary, Alberta

Then there is Bathtub. A painting … a painting within a painting, there’s water on water; she’s in the tub dreaming of the seascape, waterspout, sprite, in a painting to the left of the bathtub? Maybe. Perspectives get mangled, mashed-up, multiple viewpoints all at the same time, like you just dropped some psychedelics. Though that is not her modus operandi. I ask her why, despite all of this kookiness, we the viewer do not feel queasy, seasick.

“That’s because it’s the flatness of painting, it’s not trying to make a convincing space. If I tried to make a convincing space you’d get queasy for sure!”

“If I made transitions, and made things make more sense, then it would almost be an impossible space, that people would try to figure it out. I’d rather have people be reminded that it’s a painting than an impossible space. “

Then there’s the comparatively minimalist Brick Wall. Another personal favourite. My guess falls flat, that like Studio Door, this is documenting liminal space. She says my guess that this is a mash-up of the views a pedestrian might encounter every day in older parts of Toronto is not exactly what she is seeing.

“I think with a lot of the work in this series in the last four years it is so… unintellectual, it’s a ‘tree tree tree’, or a ‘brick wall, brick wall’. For me, it’s the sense that, the brick wall, I couldn’t see anything beyond what was directly in front of me.

If you have that feeling that you can only see what’s in front of you, and you’re a painter then you start painting that. I think it started out a bit more… depressive, I literally can’t see anything more than this. And then you start hoping to find, to see what’s really there.”

Exhibition view of Margaux Williamson: Interiors at Museum London. © Toni Hafkenscheid; Margaux Williamson (born 1976), Meeting Place, 2021, oil on canvas, 157.5 x 228.6 cm, The Bailey Collection; and Tree, 2019, oil on canvas, 160 x 228.6 cm, Sheila Heti

Meeting Place: Is this a place for secret meetings… maybe between you and your best confidant? Are the trees listening in? Are the trees having their own conversation… or between themselves, it’s the meeting place of the trees? Is this another time/space mash-up, the trees painted in the day and the background at night? And, look up, and study that deep twilight cobalt blue of the sky above the trees, because I missed that on my first encounter with this mysterious meeting space.

That subtle splash of colour peeking through, or, say, the way the over-ripe bananas in At night I painted in the kitchen just pop in that background of beiges and greys makes you wonder if this is the key to Williamson’s magic show.

In a decade old interview rebroadcast recently on CBC radio, British painter David Hockney was asked about his love of colour. How, perhaps, he celebrates it in his work over the decades.

“We live in a bit of a colourless age,” he states. “I’d noticed… films are not as colourful, the last Harry Potter was sepia and white. They’re draining the colour off.”

I ask Williamson if we’ve lost colour. Is that why her plate, or bananas are there? She says she placed that Delft blue china plate from her childhood there on purpose. Of course she would.

“I think that what happened was… we are just in such a supersaturated world, that everything is punched-up and high contrast and so much colour,” she says.

And now, with billions of Instagram images?

“So there is even more colours than there used to be, but because of that, it’s really hard (paradoxically) to see it. I don’t think about colours too much, but I do know that I probably include browns and grays and blacks and sort of muddy colours. I think that there is actually a lot of that colour in the world when you look around, but you don’t see that in advertising as much. So those colours, with all the dull colours, it allows you to see a small bit of red, or a small bit of yellow a little more clearly.”

A-ha. So maybe she is revealing a trick now.

Hockney talks about a large scale work of trees he made for an exhibit, inspired by trees he saw on walks that popped out of the landscape, but, perhaps, no one really paid any attention to.

Window, 2017, oil on canvas, 63 x 90 inches The Bailey Collection

“The exhibit is called The Bigger Picture so I’ve begun to think the paintings should be big. Scale makes a difference. There were arguments from about 30 years ago where, it wasn’t ‘painting was dead,’ but they said ‘easel painting was dead,’ meaning smaller painting. And remember, Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, they thought they were making very, very big paintings — and they were at the time. Bigger Trees Near Warter took up a whole wall. “

Williamson’s Tree, here, is also large. It doesn’t quite take up the whole wall though it also stops you in your tracks around the gallery. I mention to Margaux that I want that painting but perhaps her best friend, Sheila Heit, already owns it. How much does she want for it? Williamson laughs.

Just what is going on here in this 160 centimetre by 228.6 centimetre image? Which is to say, it’s pretty big. Is this conifer… spruce (?) seen at night, dusk… dawn, because just what are those pinkish-reddish flashes of colour popping through the branches? I know it’s not a juniper bush with red berries. Williamson won’t tell me! But I still want this exquisite painting.

It’s a tree in the night, maybe. What do they look like, how do you capture them in paint?

I mention to Williamson that when I was in high school I was walking down my street late at night and stopped to look at just such a conifer as in her painting here. Oddly, I saw the tree anew. I related the incident to my dear art teacher Ruth Anne Merner at the time, saying, you know, Ruth Anne, maybe we see better at night. Why is that? You lose detail… but, perhaps you get to see true form, the pure form, Platonic form?? Ruth Anne perked up and made a mental note.

Williamson, in dialogue with Heti in the catalogue may be speaking to this tree painting. “Two nights ago, I was sitting outside when it was getting dark, and all of these tree seeds were falling everywhere. They were brown and looking like ashes falling out of the sky. There’s a very large tree nearby that’s dying. Dying trees can produce a lot of seeds at the end.”

Interesting observation. She goes on: “And then, there was the sound of fireworks, which I could see a little bit between the trees and the school across the street.”

Have we just revealed Williamson’s magic trick in Tree? She goes on to state that she witnesses the same fireworks through the trees the next night.

“Such an odd repetition on my ordinary stoop made me feel a bit dizzy about time.”

Studio Door may be the most mundane subject here, and yet, she seems to get just the right number of taped notes on that door. I found myself returning to this koan of a painting – illuminating the artist’s methods, the behind-the-scenes of the creative process (?) that I am happy to stare at it just as much as her majestical Fire scene.

Exhibition view of Margaux Williamson: Interiors at Museum London. © Toni Hafkenscheid; Margaux Williamson (born 1976), Studio Door, 2014, oil on canvas, 152 x 122 cm, RBC Art Collection

Hockney raised another question pertinent to Interiors: just how do you catch glass, or water, in paint? “Painting water presents a graphic challenge: How do you paint the transparency of water?” he asks. “How do you paint the transparency of glass?”

And Williamson paints water, the transparency of glass with aplomb. Just look at Flowers. It’s only 47 by 47 centimetres. Miniscule compared to Fire, and yet just as transcendent. That glass, that mason jar, that beer bottle…take that for a still life, Van Gogh, Manet and David Hockney. That’s how you paint glass, and transparency.

Exhibition view of Margaux Williamson: Interiors at Museum London. © Toni Hafkenscheid; Margaux Williamson (born 1976), Door Knocker and Flask, 2021, oil on panel, 40.6 x 50.8 cm, Margaux Williamson; and Flowers, 2020, oil on panel, 47 x 47 cm, Private collection, Toronto

In several of the paintings of Interiors you’ll notice notes and newspapers and various, detritus? Informing the artist, revealing more of her process, practice, but we could be wrong. Williamson is not shambolic in her creative space, which comes as a surprise.

“I think if there is too much order, there is no artifice. If there is too much entropy, there is not art,” says Williamson.

“It’s always on that cusp between order and entropy. Where you’re… there’s that desire to see harmony where there’s no harmony, or the desire to put things in order. Or to see things as whole even if it’s a mess.”

In an interesting pull quote on the back of the exhibition catalogue – which includes essays from curator Jessica Bradley, Ben Lerner (he has his own insights into Margaux’s magic) and an interview with Sheila Heti – Williamson says, “I need words, especially other people’s words, but a lot of the time words can seem really oppressive to me, even overused or overvalued: words on T-shirts, conversations, speeches, so much talking. It makes sense that I’m a painter. And it seems like a lot of people still don’t quite understand how valuable it is – the kind of intelligence, presence, and attention one can have without words.”

A-ha. I’ll take that as a cue to not say too much about Interiors, nor transcribe all of her answers to my questions. I mention to Williamson what Werner Herzog once said in Tokyo Ga, a Wim Wenders documentary film, that the challenge of the artist is “to find new images – we must find ‘pure’ images.” But then I realize that she’s already doing that without the good filmmakers good advice.

And that ties in nicely with one more thing Hockney mentioned at the end of his interview. He said his job as an artist, over his career, simply reduces to finding ways of seeing. Seeing what is right there, has always been right there, but seen anew.

So forget what I said at the top that Interiors might be about colour. It’s about… seeing. Seeing afresh.

This life’s dim windows of the soul, wrote William Blake,
Distort the heavens
From pole to pole
And lead one to believe a lie
When one sees with
Not through
The eye

Magicians mostly use sleight of hand to fool what you think you’re seeing is real… but this one is using magic to reveal what’s outside Plato’s cave. Go see what Williamson is seeing.

It’s like… going on holiday to a foreign country. And we’ve all been waiting to do that for the last few troublesome years.

* * *

Vincent Cherniak writes in London, ON


Images are courtesy of Museum London

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  1. says: Catherine Morrisey

    I was knocked out by Margaux’s paintings and just finished How Should A Person Be. The paintings make time stand still for me. The subject matter is our own personal space in our personal time. How should we be? We need to be present, full of wonder and appreciation. Sheila Heti’s book made me feel lost, confused and emotional, just like real life. The importance of kindness and curiousity came through at the end as a lifeline.

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