Every five or six years, the painter Margaux Williamson quits painting. In these moments, she thinks she might not go back. But something always comes shuddering darkly up – an instinct, a distant possibility – and she’s compelled to dive back in after it.
The last time this happened was in 2015. In 2014, she’d completed a major body of work that she had worked on for six years. The title of the culminating book-format exhibition, I Could See Everything (Coach House Books), proclaimed the expansiveness of her vision, but after its completion, the drives and desires that had guided her approach to these paintings abruptly vanished. She felt she had been seized by a kind of blindness. “I couldn’t see anything,” she says.
The I Could See Everything paintings amplified the heightened recognition Williamson had been experiencing since 2010, when her best friend Sheila Heti published a celebrated novel about their relationship that portrayed her as a gnomic muse. How Should a Person Be? could well be read as a love letter to Williamson, and, for many who searched out her work after reading the novel, Heti’s admiration was contagious. When I Could See Everything was published four years later, the book received international praise, and Williamson stepped past Heti’s spotlight into her own well-deserved acclaim. Now, with a recent exhibition at White Cube gallery in London (Introductions, March 19 – May 11) and another this winter at McMichael Canadian Art Collection (Interiors, October 15 – May 22, 2022), she is once again emerging from a long period of cocooned working with a series of still-life paintings whose domesticity and circumspection belie a wild new confidence.
The paintings in I Could See Everything are really, really good. I own a small print of one from the series, titled I healed the little animals (2014). The version I have is different than the painting of the same name in the exhibition catalogue, but they both show basically the same thing: a small creature held by giant hands. In the one that hangs in my office, the creature looks like a bunny; the hand that holds it merges with the dark background, as if the warm, tight space of that grip was also the vast space of the cosmos. No other painting has shown me so clearly how much comfort I want, or how good I want to feel. When I asked Williamson about these paintings, she told me they were the answer to the question, “What would make you really happy?”
All the works in I Could See Everything test the frontiers of what Williamson felt she could do with paint on a canvas: “I was like, ‘Look, you’re a painter. You can make your own world. You’re not confined by reality’.” She was reading and thinking about the Trickster figure, who can create new worlds with a transgressive word or a touch, by shifting things, knocking them off balance, or adapting them. Each painting in the series is a kind of Trickster koan – each literally tells a story: We climbed into a hole in the wall (2014); We were really very happy for their love (2014); We built a new city with our shadows (2014). Most were completed at high speed, during a burst of productivity in the months leading up to the book’s publication, after gestating for more than five years. “It was a reckless and free way to go,” she says, in retrospect.
When she was done with the series, that looseness and confidence were done, too. It was as though her paintings had been coming from the sky; now they weren’t coming at all. But in that aftermath, one painting still offered a glimmer of possibility for Williamson, a still-life titled At night I painted in the kitchen (2014). Though one of the only large paintings from I Could See Everything, it had a humbleness that pulled at her. When she finally started to pick up her brushes again, at the end of 2015 – after giving birth to her son Billy and making a film in Texas with artist friends from Toronto – she returned to the domestic scene of her kitchen and created a painting called Table and Chair (2016). She says that all the paintings she’s made since then have flowed directly from “the limitations of where I was, and the comfort of those limitations.” In other words: her studio, her kitchen, her bedroom, her yard, her street, her life.
“It was everything in front of me,” she told me last February, two weeks before the global pandemic was declared. “I realized that even if I can’t see anything, I can see what’s right here. And I felt a bit of joy from that.”
It’s difficult to take your eyes from the collision between flatness and depth in Williamson’s paintings. In any of her largescale paintings made since 2016, the accordion-work of perspectives bend around her subjects, the effect made more visible because she paints to the edge of the canvas. She offers the viewer many ways to hinge and slide through space, similar to Cubism but more organic and collage-like. “The canvas always seems angled up toward you and at the same time inviting you in, as if it’s coming to meet you,” observes Jessica Bradley, who’s curating the upcoming McMichael show. The surreptitious heaving of her compositions and the alternating areas of blur and focus together perform a kind of optical mimicry; they push you back behind your eyeballs. Her unstudied brushstroke gives the work a Cézanne-like heft and tactility.
According to Williamson’s deadpan narrative, she started playing with space in this way back in 2008, after realizing that “paintings are flat.” In 2015, when she returned to At night I painted in the kitchen, she discovered a minor-seeming innovation that propelled her toward a follow-on revelation: among the objects arrayed haphazardly across the tabletop – a DVD, an open newspaper, a cabbage – she had included the same two bananas twice, one pair darker than the other because they were painted a few days later. This was a small detail, but nonetheless it reminded her that “paintings don’t move,” and led her down a path she has followed for the past five years.
Rather than jolting her sense of imaginative possibility, as playing with space had done for the I Could See Everything paintings, Williamson’s discovery of time – call it her ripe banana moment – gave her a new way to look at the details of her own small life. After talking about it with her at length, the way I’ve put it together is that she had been painting from a movie in her mind, and then all of a sudden, the movie ended, and the screen went blank. At first, she felt an emptiness, but then she began to see things reflected in the screen: a chair, a T-shirt, her phone, the tree across the street. It was hard, slow work, painting through the shadows, and this very slowness and difficulty produced an effect like a long exposure. Though they seem to be still-life paintings, all the work she’s made since 2016 brim with action; they move at the corners of your eyes.
I stayed in Williamson’s guest apartment for a week in February 2020, a few weeks before the pandemic. She is generous about letting people stay in the small detached suite for free – including those she hardly knows, like me –partly to compensate for what feels to her like the embarrassing privilege of living in a large-ish house in downtown Toronto. Her then-partner Misha Glouberman owns the house; Williamson decided not to sign the deed at the last minute, because she felt uncomfortable owning property on Indigenous land. The couple have since separated, and Williamson has moved into the guest apartment. She continues to work at her studio, in what was once a large garage beside the house. It is a squat, gray cinderblock structure with graffiti scrawled lazily across the front side and vines crawling overtop. In the summer, she opens the garage door for light and air. From the outside, it is unassuming to the point of invisibility, but inside it feels surprisingly spacious. There is a large desk, a sofa for sitting, a card table for visiting and for the frequent tarot readings Williamson gives to her friends, a worktable in the middle, and finished and unfinished paintings hung across all four walls.
It was evening the first night I visited, and a man visibly holding an axe walked up to the open studio door behind me in the dark, and asked, “Is this a painter’s studio?”
“Yes it is,” Williamson told him, smiling as she shut the door.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” she said, unfazed.
The painting that captivated me most during that visit was Tree (2020). For two nights I sat at her table drinking too much wine and often gazing at it while we talked. The subject is a blue spruce that stands across the street from her front door, and the composition is a bit like putting your face about two feet from the tree and slowly shuffling circles around it for a period of several years. Williamson had become obsessed with it back in 2017 and observed it daily on her short walks to and from the studio. Once, she jumped the low brick wall into the tiny front courtyard over which the tree dominated, to rescue it from a vine that seemed to be killing it.
Over the course of our conversations, we continually returned to that painting and what was going through her head when she made it. Every time we talked about it, she would always explain its origin with a sort of incantation: “Tree tree tree tree tree.” Literally, like that. She told it this way, I think, to suggest an evacuation of ideas, the rush of reality.
Trees are perfect subjects for painting. Every individual tree is so intrinsically interesting and yet boring, like how any particular moment of life is both dull and surreal, phantasmagorical and ordinary. If you want the beauty of the tree, you must accept its lack of specialness. If you reject the tree for its obviousness, you lose a ready source of wonder. But all this negotiating takes place on the human side; on the tree side, there is only unmitigated presence.
That is how I tell myself the story of “Tree tree tree tree tree.”
It was Sheila Heti who bought Tree. I asked her why in an email, and she wrote back:
“I just love it. For the same reasons you do, I’m sure. One feels almost dizzy looking at it. There is something iconic about it, and at the same time, the opposite of iconic: dreamlike and the image unresolving itself constantly… I can’t wait to have it in my home where I can just stare at it and go into the world that it promises: the depths.”
For the last few years, Williamson has been part of a writing group with Heti and a few other people. During the pandemic, they met around an outdoor fire pit behind Williamson’s studio. (The fire would become the subject of her painting Fire, 2021, in the White Cube show.) “It’s so exciting being so scared of something,” Williamson says of writing. “I’m not scared of painting. I could care less.”
Williamson is known for drafting her paintings with words rather than images; I Could See Everything contains many pages of this source material, consisting largely of jotted notes and doodles. Over time, these cryptic scribbles have evolved into sentences and paragraphs. Once this current body of work is complete, she will likely write a book. Much like her recent paintings, the snippets I’ve read appear to be closely observed yet distorted scenes from her real life. In June, she sent me a text she’d shared with her writing group that includes the line, “It is awkward bringing people in on your art projects. When you are so used to wandering your own strange alleyways. It is hard not to feel like the host of a strange sad party.” The reference is to a collaboration, but I sensed the same sentiment – well-managed but insistent – hovering over the parts of our interactions that focused on her art. As I got to know her, it became obvious that Williamson does not greatly enjoy being written about or explaining herself, but does like meeting people to conduct thoughtful and candid discussions. She was always completely forthcoming in our interviews and game to try articulating anything I might ask about, but whenever the threat of being construed and formulated fell into the background, her relief was evident.
When we were hanging out, Williamson described aspects of an ongoing personal transformation that coincided with the creation of this body of work, but said she would sue me if I wrote any of it down. She was joking and also not. But to be honest, I couldn’t tell at the time and can’t remember now which parts were the secrets. I turned off my recorder at various moments, and when I got permission to turn it on again, she continued talking about the same things she had spoken about when the recorder was off. None of it seemed bad or embarrassing to me, but it’s very likely I was simply too obtuse to grasp why some disclosures felt vulnerable.
It’s a mistake to conflate autofiction with nonfiction, but Heti’s characterization of Williamson does seem uniquely well-observed. Heti writes of Williamson that “Her first feeling every morning was shame about all the things wrong in the world that she wasn’t trying to fix. And so it embarrassed her when people remarked on her distinctive brushstrokes, or when people called her work beautiful, a word she claimed not to understand.” And yet, while this sentiment did recur throughout our conversations, it seemed that for Williamson, this habitual mentality about art has been shifting – not that she would make any great claims for its value, but that she had made peace with it, and has even come to respect it. “I think I’m really enjoying painting,” she told me. Then she paused, and added, “Though maybe I’ll never do it again.”
When Williamson and I first met for this profile last February, she was supposed to be in the final stages of finishing the body of work she’d been working on since I Could See Everything, which was scheduled to be exhibited in a solo show at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in May. Jessica Bradley, the show’s curator, dubbed it Interiors, for the closeness and intimacy of Williamson’s subjects. When the pandemic intervened, the exhibition was rescheduled to July, then September, then October, and then, seemingly not at all. “I feel this space opening up,” Williamson told me, back in April of last year. Then we didn’t talk again for ten months.
In September, Ben Lerner published an article about Williamson in Frieze that captured the interest of Capucine Perrot, a curator at the White Cube Gallery in London. Perrot told me she was drawn to the work for its “push and pull between the hyper-real and the abstraction,” or the “back and forth between detailed areas and hazy zones.” Perrot contacted Williamson about an online exhibition and she agreed to make twelve new works. While the previous four years had been slow and painstaking, Williamson entered a burst of productivity similar to the final stretch of I Could See Everything. She had started meditating for forty minutes every afternoon to cope, and said the practice would sometimes save her four hours in a day.
When I saw the new paintings, I gasped. Whatever personal trajectory Williamson has been following, it’s working. The newest work now billows with bright colors and subtle extravagances. And her project of incorporating time continued evolving, so that with Fire, for example, it feels as though she compresses an eon into a single instant – like looking through into the prehistoric world while also remaining squarely in the present moment.
The most exciting, I think, is Front Door (2021), which shows a voluminous burst of bright, half-dead flowers in a patch of grass and garbage beside her front step, like spring and summer slumped together after a long winter. It’s as tender as I healed the little animals, but without the dream-like longing. Williamson’s relationship to the work is less ebullient than mine, however: she said she feels “like this person who’s watering their five small flowers and then they go back and do the dishes and go to sleep.”
It’s taken her a while to come to this level of acceptance. For the first few years of working on the new paintings, Williamson was plagued by the feeling that she “didn’t have anything.” Then, slowly, she came to understand their value. “When I landed with the paintings and suddenly I could see them, I respected the labor. I respected the objects I was painting. I suddenly valued the smallness of them. When I did that, I also could respect the smallness of my efforts.”
Though their mood is brighter, the paintings Williamson created for the White Cube exhibition submit to the same constraints that have framed her work since I Could See Everything. The only accurate way to group them is to draw a wide circle around her house in Parkdale. At the farthest edges you will find the waves lapping on the shore of Lake Ontario and trees in the Humber River valley, and then spiraling inward, the underpass at Dufferin and Queen, the wall of the elementary school across the street, the tree out her front door, the fire pit in the back yard, and then a tight pack of interiors: studio, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom. Obviously, many of us will find our experience of the last year reflected in this fixation on one’s immediate environment, but the pandemic has nothing to do with it. They are, in her telling, simply all she was capable of.
Since the paintings don’t point to any ideas or present any arguments, there’s no reason to search them for signals. Better to view them as a closely wrought inventory of Williamson’s life (minus the people, because she hates painting human figures). Taken as a whole, this body of work constitutes a list. It is an answer to the question, What’s out there? There’s a Cup (2021), and the Front Door (2021), as well as a Pool (2021) and a Fire (2021) and the Bed (2021) and the Kitchen (2021), among other things.
Lists are powerful. A list can collapse the distance between objects and feelings more effectively than a story. When my son was born two years ago, I started taking him for walks around the neighborhood. As we walked, I told him the names of things, like Adam in the Garden of Eden: tree, cat, door. After a while, I realized that by excluding verbs, it is possible to withdraw from narrativity, and in so doing, to liberate experience from utility. To let things be. And that makes things appear more vivid and interesting. For me, Williamson’s paintings have the same emancipatory effect that she experiences when she trusts her instincts. We don’t have to make the world more than it is; in fact, the only way to achieve that sense of fullness is by not trying to.