On Margaux Williamson’s I Could See Everything

This article was originally published in Issue 3.24 (Fall 2014)

The title alone—I Could See Everything—evokes a sense of wonder. Imagine, what you would see, if you could see everything. As teachers, we ask students to use the conditional with caution. The reader must know whether you speak in fact or in the hypothetical. Watch for the gap, we warn, between what you could see and what you did see.

In good faith, we do not ask the same of artists. We maintain that gap for works like I Could See Everything. A fictional art gallery (The Road at the Top of the World Museum) and its able curator (AGO’s Ann Marie Peña) exhibit forty-six new paintings by Margaux Williamson. Docent Mark Greif guides us through each gallery. Critics provide reviews. The artist gives an interview and, finally, in the last section, we can ferret her source materials, sketches, and text sketches. The book is an exhibition, reception, and retrospective in one. We can see everything.

The book jacket (a detail from At night I painted in the kitchen) hints that perhaps everything is not all it’s cracked up to be. Williamson’s everything might be drab. Quotidian and aging. Broad brushstrokes give a thumbed, illegible newspaper. Bananas past their prime. Empty beer bottles. Is this everything?

In the book’s interview between Williamson and Chris Kraus, the artist talks about Nietzsche’s principle of Eternal Return: the idea that though time is infinite, events are not. Combinations occur and repeat forever. “I was looking around at what I could see from where I was standing—the banality, the meaning or meaninglessness of everything.” Later, in a text sketch, she writes by hand: “Marcel Duchamp ‘Whether you paint or not it is the same thing.’”

The Eternal Return terrified Nietzsche. It drove him to outdo morality in a sort of hero’s quest for wholeness. For Williamson, her consideration of the Eternal Return may have the converse effect. Her paintings show a sedulous contemplation of morality, and they do so through the fragmentation of bodies. A continual reoccurring of limbs, torsos, hands, and heads.

In the stark and pretty We died young, white space gives shape to two sets of legs in a swimming pool. Who died young? Only the good. In I healed the little animals, the bright side of dark hands clumsily truss together cat and bird, predator and prey. The fingers try, and probably fail, to help. With We had to become monsters to save the world (Sheila in a Batman costume), a cropped torso and missing arms dressed in black and grey, Williamson’s conflict, whether hero’s or monster’s, is clear. We are good and bad; we are good and therefore bad. Her notes from another text sketch, “Dante’s Inferno outlines a theory that all sin arises from love…The disordered love of good things.”

In the last painting, We saw the racism carved in stone, she gives no body parts for us to contextualize our own bigotry. Instead, she paints one of racism’s most effective structures, a cluster of ghettoized buildings, in browns and camo greens, teetering and sinking into mud. Perhaps Nietzsche, in the late nineteenth century, could maintain the privileged fallacy that we cannot know the consequences of our actions. Williamson, of the twenty-first century, can, and does, see everything.
Margaux Williamson’s work is featured in two recent issues of TCR: 3.22 and 3.23

Chelsea Rooney’s review will be published in the print issue of TCR 3.24 (Fall 2014)

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