Margaret Keelan’s recent body of work is a delightful assemblage of doll-like figures and animals. From 2011 to 2019, Keelan established her final form and style by merging animals and insects into her subject matter, refining the physique of her figures, and integrating the usage of primary colors. Today, Keelan is an impressive contributor to the trompe l’oeil art that emerged during the Renaissance. Her works are an optical illusion of form that uses ceramic to convincingly mimic the appearance of wooden dolls that have been weathered through time.
During the Renaissance, Italian painters such as Andrea Mantegna and Melozzo da Forlì deceived the viewer’s eyes by applying a newfound perspective into their paintings. By decorating ceilings in fine detail, they conjured the illusion of great heights and an infinite space ultimately paving the way for contemporary artists of trompe l’oeil such as Marilyn Levine, Keelan’s teacher and colleague during the 70s. Levine utilized ceramic art to create leather handbags, garments and briefcases, holding the belief that they are “records of human experience and activity”. It was during this time Keelan became greatly influenced by Levine, which began an association of trompe l’oeil art that would last for the rest of Keelan’s career.
Beginning in 2011, Keelan thoroughly developed the physique of her figures by integrating childlike bodily features such as bulbous limbs. The volume of the hands, arms, calves, and body in proportion to height accurately resemble brown adipose tissue seen in infants, also known as “baby fat”. Keelan also maintained in her figures the youthful facial features of dolls from the 19th century. Further, she applied opaque, vibrant primary colors into the dresses of her figures as seen in Girl Holding Flowers, Lucy, and Navigator. There is a striking contrast of texture in comparison to Keelan’s innocent subject matter.
In Feeling The Air, paint is peeling throughout the crevices and concaves of the childlike ballerina, exposing various layers of distressed surface underneath that materializes as weathered wood. While dolls from the 19th century have deteriorated through time, Keelan deliberately chooses to give new form an appearance of decomposition. Her work simulates forgotten objects of the past and evokes a sense of preserved history. The dolls appear as if they were recently salvaged from a junkyard or an antique store of collectible dolls from centuries past.
During this period, Keelan also integrated various kinds of insects and animals into her work in conjunction with the appearance of deteriorating wood, ironically presenting themes of life and death, age and innocence, and the passage of time. She works with real-life animals by using her dogs and insects within nature as models. She first photographs them, then uses these photographs as references to guide and build her work. To Keelan, signs of decay are “a metaphor for living life”. Perhaps the animals seen in Keelan’s work are a metaphor for how animals in the natural world, too, will wither one day.
Directly taught under Joe Fafard and Marilyn Levine, Keelan continues their legacy as the Associate Director of Sculpture at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, CA. Her love for ceramics resides in the flexibility and forgiving nature of the medium. She revels in the idea that clay can instantaneously give shape to her ideas, which are always three dimensional. Her technical mastery of the trompe l’oeil so convincingly mimics the texture of wood that even carpenters are in disbelief when viewing her works.
Enigmatic, introspective and engaging, Keelan’s sculptures are rich in historical context, a reflection of her psyche and overall, delightful works of contemporary art to experience.