The Paintings of Margaretta Gilboy
by George Woodman
(George Woodman is a painter and photographer who lives in New York City and Florence, Italy.  He writes occasionally on
painting, criticism and ceramics)

Of the various genres of painting (portrait, landscape, religious, etc.), still life has enjoyed a reputation as the most intellectual,
stripped-down and PURE painting of all.  The fascination of Chardin’s still life is that it gives us an 18th century sensibility without
monarch, mistress, or mythology.  A meditation on the essentials of painting would lead us from the glass bowls and fishes of
Roman fresco through the lovingly rendered vases, flowers and carpets in Flemish annunciations, to the end of the 19th century
when still life then becomes the laboratory of the avant garde. Here is where the grand schemes of Cezanne were made clear,
Cubism raised to the loftiness of Bach fugues and a spirituality worthy of Duccío expressed in the mute jars and bottles of
Morandi.  In our own time still life may seem eclipsed, yet it has persisted for some important artists if not for others.  In recent
years Jasper Johns has continuously probed at still life in his work.  Lichtenstein’s transformation from pop artist to being a kind of
American Legar pivoted on his witty and penetrating analysis of “moderne” still life.

So much being said, how should we view the work of Margaretta Gilboy for whom still life has been a primary concern for over 30
years?
“Still” implies the quiet, the motionless, repose, and still life painting suggests some contemplation of a self-enclosed and
dormant world as suggested by the word’s roots in 17th century Dutch, stilstaand leven or stilliggend leven.  Repose, however, is
not how I would characterize Gilboy’s paintings.  Imbalance, instability and threatening chaos seem to pervade a quiet, which if
still, may be the moment of stillness before the earthquake.  Dedicated to the enterprise of painting, challenged by the patient task
of translating the direct experience of things into paint, she nonetheless seems concerned to orchestrate a complex and shifting
imagery which ranges in expressive tone from the playful through the provocative to the desperate.  This is not without its
precedents even in 17th century Flanders as we recall the over scaled turbulent still life of Jourdeans and his contemporaries with
their toppled outpouring of grotesque marine life and game.  A related disquiet is found in the still lifes of James Ensor a century
ago.  Gilboy is perhaps his heir as we note that her spaces are treacherous and disorienting, the objects within them ambiguous,
covert in their roles, and the aesthetic allure of color and surface beckon toward dangerous engagements.  Let us consider more
closely how these come about.

The representation of space in painting is fundamental to defining the place and stance of the viewer with respect to a pictorial
world.  Gilboy emphasizes a space which is deep and dramatic, thanks to the techniques of perspective, but at the same time it is
often a space which will not “resolve,” will not become clear in its structure.  The viewer is then left insecure and disoriented in
relation to the picture.  She consistently chooses a high and close vantage point, a dramatic technique popular from the 16th
century, which characterizes the work of Philip Pearlstein today.  But unlike Pearlstein, Gilboy goes beyond theatrical staging to a
collapsing space, dynamic in its “look” almost in the way of Braque and quite unlike what we have come to expect from “realist”
painting.  A more interesting comparison is with Matisse who also situates himself (and the viewer) near the subject.  Matisse
represses perspective clues, flattening the image and translating it to some separate and remote “color world” for our
contemplation.  

Her intent becomes clearer when we consider the frequent use of  actors in her drama, the mirror and the quoted image, both
“pictures within pictures.”  Each of these folds its own space back into the picture in which it is located.  The mirror not only flings
back its reflection to the viewer, but bears within itself a spatial world, governed also by perspective but differently oriented.  The
duplicity of Gilboy’s mirrors is remarkable; on the one hand they reveal things which otherwise are not “in” the pictures while on the
other as objects they obscure things that would otherwise be seen.  In this way Gilboy invites us to the pleasure of voyeurism, the
glimpse stolen from the glass, while frustrating a more open inspection.  I think that we find here a blend of pleasure and guilt
united in our submission to the artist’s control.  That submission is the price of admission and we perhaps feel this in all mirror
paintings ranging from Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” even to Picasso’s “Girl in a Mirror.”  

It is like Alice in Wonderland and the temperamental similarities between Gilboy and Lewis Carroll are worth considering.  In both
the art game seems transparent but the emotional stakes are surprisingly high.

Nearly all these still lifes include other pictures as subject material, in some cases almost to the exclusion of all else.  On one
level these images function like mirrors in that they expand the space within the picture, opening up one pictorial world by annexing
another.  But unlike mirror reflections which, however bizarre, are a continuation of the space in which the mirror is located, quoted
pictures give entry into worlds in which the order and character of space is of another dimension, varying from the planer space of
Japanese prints, to Renaissance painting, to the amorphous realm of snap-shots.  More significant, this compounding of non-
sequitur pictorial spaces within Gilboy’s domain annexes visual territories that have emotional, stylistic, and formal qualities not
normally conjoined together.  This creates a visual pressure in which our grasp in consciousness of one image competes for
mental space with another.  This pressure is not merely on the level of colliding subject matter, but involves orientation (upside
down, oblique perspective, etc.) and the tangible physical qualities which demark the differences among snap shots, posters, and
post-cards.  The conjunctions reach baroque complexity in “Primavera La Ronde”  in which an apparently 18th Century image
nearly concealed by objects is revealed primarily through two disjointed mirror images which occupy fully half the painting.
The picture as an object to be pictured is not new in art.  The device was popular in Roman mural painting and continues through
Medieval art where we find the representation of the sacred image included as a subject in pictures.  Clearly Vermeer delighted in
the painting within the painting and the collage aesthetic of our century presents examples of this from Kurt Schwitters to the boxes
of Joseph Cornell.  Common to all of these is the assimilation to, even digestion by, an over-arching aesthetic.  Rauschenberg
epitomizes this assimilative stance.  Gilboy, because of her dedication to the observation and painting the particularities of things,
does not smooth and flatten her borrowed images to some reductive scheme.  The “objecthood” of pictures is emphasized by
folding and cropping them and by using them as the support for other objects.  There remains a continuous tug between seeing
them with the eye of a painter of objects and the eye of a viewer of pictures.  
Quotation, recontextualization and the mixing of styles is commonplace in postmodern art.  Gilboy was well established in these
practices long before they became de rigeur in the early ‘90’s.  Where she differs is that the emphasis lies not in the
deconstruction of the images, the exposure of their cultural baggage, but the deconstruction of the still life, its fracturing as a visual
experience.  On this level her work resolves the antinomy between realist art and cubist art circa 1920.  Gilboy wants it all.  The
degree of distance between her deconstruction and that of a younger generation can be seen in the degree of deep affection, even
love, for the images treated and a cynicism about the power of art.

If the staging and organization of these dramas is complex, that complexity is held in balance by a visual clarity, a lucidity, in the
use of color.  She composes in a broad chromatic scale, bright whites to deep blacks, and sequenced through yellowish ochres,
oranges to salmon, rosy pink, cherry red to blue black and finally to carbon black.  Blues and greens are important but as contrasts
outside this scale.  Control is maintained in modeling forms so that the highlights and shadows on an object do not fall outside
the range for richness in the local color of that object.  Therefore the coloring is never murky or strident.  The sweet, clear voicing of
these colors is important because it is through them that we make contact with her complex and charged imagery.  Color provides
the right “tone of voice” for what Gilboy has to say.  Her color has a certain equipoise and is disarming in its frankness.  The
mechanics of description in paint are handled with a skill that does not eschew the luxurious detail but will not let it intrude upon
the tale being told.  

Every still life painter has an inventory of objects, a cast of favorite characters.  In Gilboy’s case this seems to include spaces that
are in rooms but do not describe them, unremarkable furniture from the 20s and 30s which might exist in a childhood from the 40s
and 50s, mirrors of the same epoch, plants and flowers (the rhetoric of still life), ceramics and small objects whose value would
be personal rather than intrinsic.  These all exist in some moment of clutter in an otherwise orderly world.  There is an absence of
decay, no dirt, no things chosen for the patina of time.  And of course there are the many pictures, posters, snapshots, those
signposts to another world beyond this bland domesticity.  Finally, we must mention the surrealist object, those objects which by
partial obstruction or paradoxical description evade identification and seem mysterious, possibly threatening.  The surface color of
these objects seems at variance with their illumination and suggested tactile qualities.  Such objects, familiar from the prose of
Andre Breton or the collages of Max Ernst, exist also in Gilboy’s paintings.
Still life painting may seem the most conservative, closed-in art that we can imagine.  It usually suggests a withdrawn stance, yet
despite the very strictness of its form it can be remarkably expressive in the hands of its best practitioners.  There is something a
little unsettling, unnatural, in that which is both vividly present and very STILL.  The great floral paintings of Fantin La Tour have this
quality of leaving us not in repose while the flowers hold their breath.  I would consider Gilboy as being in this tradition.  This
places her in contrast to legions of still life artists the work of whom seems an exercise in description producing an effect of strain
which if it carries us beyond boredom only leads to stupefaction.  What these paintings actually express for Gilboy we cannot
guess.  I do not regard paintings as a pretext for playing psychological sleuth.  Like a novelist, she has set before us a certain
world which is a work of fiction.  Her ambition in the fictional enterprise is enormous, requiring at times the elaborate mis-en-
scene of multiple panels, and suggesting that still life can embrace epic.  Peopled by furniture, faces, genitalia and farce these
object-dramas can also reveal a Jamesian feel for the delicately poised ambiguity.  This fiction obviously has roots in her life but
should not be confused with it.  This is the world that the artist chose to create and its interest lies within it, not outside.  As the
narrator in the novel reveals a certain tone, an attitude both toward his characters and the reader, so Gilboy reveals a tone in her
work which is complex in its texture, subtle yet ingenious.  Passion and dryness seem to mingle.  Her stance toward the viewer is
active, setting puzzles, offering pleasures, occasionally clowning, sometimes being abrasive.  She is never condescending and
the painting comport themselves as if the viewer was an intelligent person with some culture and a capable eye.  The viewer feels
on a fair and liberal footing with the artist.  Painting like this makes civilization still seem a hopeful possibility.  

Review written by George Woodman