Extreme Curiosity: The Contagious Nature of Possibility in Margaret Keller’s Art
Margaret Keller’s Soulard studio is the sort of place I could spend an entire day. There’s a feeling common to the spaces where creative people work that always seems familiar: The white walls are dotted with holes of various sizes where all sorts of things have hung, and exposed beams and cables suspend from the tall ceiling. It’s bright with light from large windows, and there’s coffee in abundance.
This is exactly the sort of place I once dreamed of having, as most aspiring artists probably do when imagining paint-spattered futures. To be honest, I still do from time to time.
This particular room is divided in two. One side is workspace. The other has a sort of informal seating area. On the work side, a table is covered with crooked rows of paint tubes in various stages of empty. Another larger table has Mylar painted with pink hexagonal cells draped over it and books open to illustrations of insects. There are shelves with boxes and bins, prints hanging on the walls, heaps of material and stacks of canvases and boards. This is the ephemera of Keller’s persistent curiosity.
If it is possible to distill Keller’s motivations down to just one thing, it would be curiosity. As reductive as it may seem to boil a body of work down to just one word, one dimension of a person’s personality, in this case the characterization feels completely fair. For Keller, curiosity is not a casual, one-dimensional quirk of her personality. Her curiosity is a companion and a partner. It’s always there, always working, always pushing and nudging her to ask more questions, to try new techniques and materials. She calls it an “extreme curiosity,” and it drives her entire approach.
As Keller explains, “Every body of work has a thesis.” A thesis is often found in a question. To what extent are we being surveilled and by whom? What is our place in the ecosystem? What are we doing to our home planet? What will happen to this world after we do whatever damage we are inflicting? Where do we go from here?
These are not new questions, but they are unique questions. They’re the kinds of questions people tend to simplify and answer with clumsy platitudes. They’re asked so often that we tend to forget how complicated the questions actually are. They’re almost cliché in their ubiquity among creatives. What makes Keller’s approach unique is the cleverness with how she handles the question posed by a body of work. She’s nuanced and measured. This is not an easy accomplishment, requiring more than a little innovation.
Often artists tend to find a medium and stick with it. This is not Keller’s M.O. “I like to break rules,” she says with detectable pride. “I constantly have at least six or seven bodies of work going, and they’re all really different.”
Keller’s work eschews the notion that an artist must have a signature “style” within which they operate. Though there may be thematic connections of nature or technology between projects, the materials, the scope, the message and the techniques are all very disparate. Whatever the “thesis” of the work, there is a dogged pursuit of just the right process and material to achieve the desired effect. Where some people might pause at the idea of learning a new medium—say 3D printing—and just go with what they know, Keller’s curiosity demands more. It demands another quality that will prove a cornerstone of her process: fearlessness.
“I leap before I look,” she says. There is no fear of the unknown here, no guardrails of ignorance. When Keller decides on a course of action, she will find a way to make it happen. Consider her recent “Riverbend” project, installed on the Gateway Arch National Park grounds, which traced the path of the Missouri River.
During an exhaustive search, she considered close to 300 different combinations of materials to find just the right solution. Most of them were materials Keller had limited to no experience with. This is the wall that surrounds many artists’ purviews—and, frankly, so many of us when we face problems. This is perhaps why we seek to answer sophisticated questions in the simplest of ways. Rather than build the knowledge to answer, we bend the answer to our knowledge.
From a technical standpoint, Keller’s work is impressive—she recently received a 2019 Artist Fellowship Award in Visual Art from The Regional Arts Commission for excellence in visual art. The amount of research, learning and development that goes into each body is extraordinary. It’s easy to study each piece and look at the process and the materials and wonder at the hours put into creating them. Everything is purposeful and deliberate. There are no half-measures.
Those details, the time and thought that has gone into each collection, transport the audience to an environment. To build a compelling world, the details must be present and fully realized, and Keller has done that work. There may be educational value in the dissection of those details, but in the end, to the viewer, it may not matter if the surveillance drone is 3D printed or cast in resin.
Keller’s work rewards repeated viewing and inquiry. She doesn’t tell the viewer what to think about a given topic but invites further interrogation. It’s graceful and playful while still maintaining the gravity of some of the most consequential topics we live with. Her work presents them in a novel way that manages to subvert the fatigue we’ve built up to the discussion.
“The Space Between,” the series of 3-D works Keller is currently fabricating, is a prime example of this. “It is all about our contemporary distance from nature and how we now mostly experience it digitally, rather than in person,” she explains. “The newest works are an elegy for our loss of contact with nature and look imaginatively at a fictive future.”
In Keller’s invented universe, “because of climate change and devastation of the environment, various species (humans, animals, plants, insects) have had to mutate, transform and adapt into hybrids in order to survive.” She says, “I’m beginning the process of building the structures or homes where these imaginary beings ‘live’. These are futuristic domiciles for evolving, hybrid humans, hornets and beavers.” One of the first “beings” is an 18-inch, oversized, transparent, fuchsia-colored hornet of cast resin, along with its 3-foot-high nest of cast pigmented paper pulp.
Keller’s command of so many mediums is key to its success in transporting the viewer. But it’s the ability of her work to captivate that makes it great and vital.
The William and Florence Schmidt Art Center on the campus of South Western Illinois College in Belleville is adding Keller’s artwork “Link” to its permanent collection. It has also commissioned Keller to make two more similar works to hang as a group in the two-story atrium on campus. From Sept. 6 through Dec. 29, the exhibit “Margaret Keller: Botanica Absentia,” organized by the students of Teen Museum Studies, is on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. For more information on upcoming shows and installations, visit her website.
The featured image depicts Margaret Keller at her one-person exhibit “The Space Between” at the Schmidt Art Center. It shows her artwork “Link” along with one of the 48-inch-diameter floor pieces consisting of the actual pieces from the spaces between. Image courtesy of Betsy Morris.