Margaux Williamson seems to be in full verbal flight this sunny afternoon in her airy studio overlooking the railroad tracks and gettin’-by businesses on the western outskirts of downtown Toronto. A font of effervescence, she has already admitted to a tendency “to say a million things in one sentence.” Now, in response to a question about her fondness for the “ugly beautiful” or the “beautiful ugly,” she’s observing how, from her perspective, “it’s pretty easy to make pretty things, to mimic pretty things.
“I think,” she continues, “ugly beautiful gets to exist a little bit outside of what’s expected about people and what you have to contort to fit into. Ugly beautiful’s a little more …” Williamson suddenly stops and lets out a characteristically hearty laugh: “I’m talking but I don’t know what I’m talking about!” She gives a shake of her dirty-blond hair. Her eyes – a shade that would have inspired Lou Reed’s Pale Blue Eyes had he not written the song seven years before she was born – widen and flash.
It’s a charming and altogether understandable moment for Williamson who, as a painter, admits to having a faster-working hand than brain.
Moreover, in a postmodern art world where the discourse for the last three decades has been driven more by theory and politics than belles-lettres elegance, who hasn’t wandered into a cul-de-sac of her own vocabulary? It’s understandable, too, because Williamson, 38, has been doing a lot of talking in recent weeks – to Vogue, The Huffington Post, The Believer and NY Art Beat; at the Bluestockings bookstore and the Mulherin + Pollard gallery, both on New York’s groovy Lower East Side; at the Double Double Land in Toronto’s funky Kensington Market.
In other words, Margaux Williamson is having a moment. Or perhaps more accurately, the media is having a moment with her – and not for the first time. The occasion in this instance is twofold: She is the subject of a solo exhibition, running through May 25, of new and new-ish “ugly beautiful” figurative paintings at the Mulherin + Pollard, her first such show in six years. As well, its title, I Could See Everything, is the name of a (meta? you bet!) book – not a catalogue of the show, but a work of art itself – of 46 reproductions of Williamson paintings just published by Toronto’s venerable Coach House Press. For Williamson, the book is very much the thing. Indeed, she recently told an acquaintance: “The show at the Mulherin is, to me, mainly a front for a book launch.”
There’s irony here. It was another book that launched Williamson into the larger public consciousness: How Should a Person Be?, the celebrated “novel from life” written by Williamson’s BFF/partner-in-art, Sheila Heti. First published by Canada’s House of Anansi Press in 2010, the novel has since sold tens of thousands of copies while gaining cachet as a zeitgeist barometer à la On the Road and The Catcher in the Rye. Set mostly in Toronto, Heti’s free-form text is populated by characters drawn from her real-life circle of artsy friends. Most are identified by first names – Sholem, Misha, Sheila – and by occupations congruent with those names. Thus, there is Margaux – “Margaux”? – who, aside from “Sheila,” is How Should’s most vivid creation: a painter who “doesn’t trust painting” but who “worked harder at art and was more skeptical of its effects than any artist I knew.”
Williamson, of course, had a life and a career before How Should a Person Be? as did her pack o’ pals, including long-time co-vivant Misha Glouberman, co-author, with Heti, of 2011’s The Chairs Are Where the People Go. But there’s nothing quite like the attention of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker to throw a scene into high relief. Before you could say “Andy Warhol and The Factory!” Heti, Williamson & Co., it seemed, were as much a sociological phenomenon as an artistic one, accruing sufficient cultural capital to turn Toronto into a hipster culture capital. Today Williamson avers, “Being in that book wasn’t such an influence on my life. What was was working with Sheila … Being a character feels a tiny bit more like being a parlour trick or something.”
Like most Torontonians, Williamson is not native to the city. She was born in Pittsburgh, and spent her first 13 years in the States, several of them in Texas, before moving with her parents to Waterloo, Ont. In 1996, she enrolled in fine arts at Queen’s University in Kingston, graduating in 1999. Somewhere in there she spent a semester taking classes at the prestigious Glasgow School of Art. By 2000, she was living in Toronto. “I loved all of art,” she says today. “But I think I chose painting because I thought it was accessible as both medium and message. … Everyone can enjoy a painting!”
Williamson, as How Should’s “Sheila” attests, worked hard; she piled up an impressive inventory of shows, including a solo date at New York’s Marvelli Gallery in 2007, and another at Fette’s in Los Angeles. Never one to get “too concerned about originality,” she admits to “clinging in my head and in my art” to Goya and Manet, Duchamp, Luc Tuymans and Philip Guston over the years. At the same time, she insists she usually gets “self-conscious or so interested in referencing art history and contemporary art [only] when it nags at me or helps me understand something.”
A self-described “depressive, willful optimist,” Williamson actually abandoned painting, at least for gallery purposes, in 2008. The decision was the climax of a long-standing crisis: When she chose to be an artist, in the 1990s, she says, “In some ways I felt like I was throwing my life away.” It was a feeling of “disgust … Like I didn’t even need parents to express that; I was like that in my own head. I felt that art was sort of a selfish, indulgent thing to do.”
“I’ve changed a lot, obviously,” not least because she has seen time and again “evidence” of the “incredible impact” great art can have on the world. Further, when she sees her friends do good work, it’s a source of neither envy nor anxiety but calm. “My friends are my friends, in fact, because they calm me down.”
Williamson hardly slackened her pace during her hiatus from painting. Her first film, the ramshackle Teenager Hamlet, made for $4,000, with star Heti posing such enduring questions as “If you could think of an object to represent your mother, what would that object be?” had its premiere at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. There were residencies at the Klondike Institute for Art and Culture in 2009 in Dawson, and at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2012. She assembled an acclaimed video, Dance Dance Revs. Co., for the band Tomboyfriend; founded a culture-and-art blog, Back to the World, with writers Carl Wilson and Chris Randle; and from 2010 to 2012 ran a well-regarded series of quirky online reviews titled Movie is my Favourite Word.
"There was also, in 2011, a diagnosis of cancer. Fortunately, it was “very curable and manageable.” Treated by a seven-month regime of heavy chemotherapy that resulted in “lost hair and some temporary brain damage – the scary part,” the disease has been in remission since 2012."
The genesis of I Could See Everything occurred during Williamson’s month-long stay at the Klondike. Something about the long, dark winter nights contrasted with the short, bright days; and “just being away from everything” got her thinking about resuming painting, albeit “in a different way.” It took a while, but after returning to Toronto, and with the help of curator Ann Marie Pena, she hit on the idea of making a series of paintings where the catalogue – not the exhibition – would be the primary art object.
To heighten the effect, the book would be conceived as a commemoration of a (non)exhibition marking the 10th anniversary of the Road at the Top of the World Museum, also fictional, in Dawson. Like all good catalogues, it would include thoughtful essays; and, like all good art books, cover blurbs – real ones – by filmmaker Miranda July and National Book Award finalist Ben Lerner, no less.
The (real) paintings, mostly oils on wood, are in a variety of sizes, largely in hues of “shoe-polish brown,” grey and dirty white. It’s a mostly downcast, even mournful “exhibition” of still lifes, heads, hands, torsos and prone figures. Titles like We loved the world and the things in the world, We painted the women and children first, We were rich convey the sense of a present informed by a traumatic or tragic past.
The text on the back cover calls I Could See Everything “a breakthrough body of work,” and even though she didn’t write it, Williamson agrees. The reasons, however, are obscure: “My paintings in the past – people liked them; I was very lucky and they sold. But I thought that the best thing you could do with a painting is make a window out of the world a little bit to give a bit more space or sort of empathize. And with this work, it was about how to tie those windows to the real world. So in these paintings, they’re both giving more space than my paintings in the past ever did and also not letting you go all the way there.”
When Williamson finished the book, she thought maybe “this is it for painting for a while.” But during her recent trip to New York, “All these paintings came flashing into my head. And it was such a pleasure to think that there’s more to come.” She pauses. “But I’m not sure if this is a conclusion or the start.” She notes she’s been offered “some resources and some help” to write and direct another movie which, if it comes to pass, will be at once simpler, more sophisticated and narratively sounder than Teenager Hamlet.
San Francisco’s The Believer, meanwhile, has asked her to be its movie reviewer; and the literary journal n + 1 has invited her to serve as art director for an issue. More immediately, Pena is including six of Williamson’s paintings in a group show this summer at London’s Frith Street Gallery.
Toronto, however, will continue to be home even as Willliamson acknowledges that the hype of recent years “feels like a little bit of pretend.” After her first five years in the city, the artist admits that “I was, like, tearing my flesh away thinking about getting out of town.” On this occasion, she resisted the temptation to flee, realizing “I’d done that most of my life and that probably the only way I was going to learn anything was to stay put. And I have: I had no idea what it was like to know people for so long. I didn’t realize the depth you could get with relationships and friendships.”