Margaret Meehan is a research-based multidisciplinary artist living and working in Dallas, Texas. Meehan depicts and recontexulizes those of difference amongst systems of homogeneity, focusing on constructs of gender and race. She has shown at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Flowers Gallery in London, The Dallas Museum of Art, Artpace in San Antonio, David Shelton Gallery in Houston, Women and Their Work in Austin, and Conduit Gallery in Dallas.
Rebecca Marino: An ongoing theme in your work is “the other,” or people on the margins of society. And the other is almost always represented in terms of abnormal physical appearance (Olive Oatman, Hell-Cat Maggie, Joseph Merrick) and represented primarily by women. What is it about the body that interests you? Has your work always been this figurative?
Margaret Meehan: Fundamentally my work is about otherness that goes beyond dualities and instead exists in shades of gray, the slippage that exists between the borders of the categories that society defines us by. I have always been interested in the body. Not necessarily how it physically works or even the figure as a genre but more how bodily difference has been perceived throughout history. This includes the intersections of myths, monsters, and miracles. I wonder how people decide who falls within our sphere of protection and who lands outside of it. What happens when we ask: “Whom do we protect and whom should we be protected from?”
These questions have led me to various narratives, including those of Joseph Merrick and Frankenstein’s monster, specifically Mary Shelley’s version but also the monsters in Boris Karloff’s films. Hell-Cat Maggie, who was part of a gang called the Dead Rabbits in the Five Points neighborhood in New York in the 1840s, is one my latest obsessions. There is no image of her, but there are some pretty vivid descriptions that give me so much to work with. It’s said she had teeth filed to points and that she wore long, clawlike brass fingernails to use as razors. She was fierce, a criminal and a survivor. A “monster” and a forgotten woman, left out of the history of a period in New York that was filled with horrific men.
Hell-Cat Maggie is part of my growing interest in the histories of American women over the past 150 years. They embody our country’s past of radical social upheaval, which has a deep and ongoing legacy. A few years ago I started reading the book Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching by Crystal N. Feimster. It looks at gender and sexuality in the Jim Crow South. It made me think of patterns and behavior that happened in multiple societies at multiple times. The book is mainly about 1880–1930 and how close to 200 women were murdered by lynch mobs in the American South. Many more were tarred and feathered, burned, whipped, or raped. It spoke of gender and race after the Civil War and the brutal world of white supremacist politics and patriarchy, but it also pointed out the complicated history of white women on both sides of history.
Since then I’ve tried to play with the potential for violence in my work. I’m not necessarily trying to say who the villain is. Violence can be perpetuated by all sides, especially when we consider the ways that fear, survival instincts, and the struggle for dominance play out. In the end I’m interested in women who when faced with horrors survived and transcended these situations, and I’m most interested in those who held hope and worked for a better tomorrow.
RM: In your last two exhibitions, Paper Moon and Every Witch Way but Loose, you created your own fictional visual narratives by introducing different figures into pre-existing narratives: in Paper Moon with Coco Chanel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and in Every Witch Way but Loose with the actress Ruth Gordon and David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. What is this process like in terms of how you make those connections?
MM: I do a lot of reading. I collect images and articles. I tend to go down rabbit holes and then make connections between all of the things I’m thinking about. Paper Moon linked a fashion icon’s legacy (Coco Chanel) to a fictional beast (Frankenstein’s monster) to show that looks can be deceiving. Every Witch Way but Loose reinvented the career of the movie star Ruth Gordon. Referencing her 1969 Oscar win for Rosemary’s Baby, and the cult classic Harold and Maude (1971), I cast her as the central character in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Gordon became a stand-in for American women fighting to be treated as neither a devil nor an angel in a time of sexual liberation and second-wave feminism. Both exhibitions were about the reality of being human by pointing out the darker sides of the human spirit as well as the good. Frankenstein, the book, is an inversion of the story of Chanel. Shelley’s monster had a virtuous and beautiful spirit that became violent and vengeful only when he was mocked and tortured by a public that saw him as repugnant and monstrous. Chanel’s company and Shelley’s monster were both built from the bones of others. Research for both shows involved reading David J. Skal’s The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. It talks about German and European horror films after WWI and WWII and how they came out of the fear of all these soldiers returning home from war with mangled bodies and minds and how horror as a genre (and later 1950s kitsch fright films) helped them come to terms with the very real horrors of war.
RM: You mentioned your focus on the depiction of women as monsters but also your interest in the “final girl,” which is essentially the female protagonist left to fight the monster. Can you speak to both roles and any similarities that exist between the two?
MM: I was born and raised in the 1970s, during second-wave feminism, and educated in the 1990s in Seattle during the emergence of third-wave feminism and the Riot Grrrl movement. My interest in cycles of representation—in particular, the tendency for women to be depicted as monsters—comes out of these repeating waves of women being depicted as “other” or “monster,” individuals to be contained and controlled. Every Witch Way but Loose was a reaction to Wendy Davis’s famous filibuster of the Texas abortion bill and continues today with Trump’s pussy grab, Mike Pence’s war against Planned Parenthood and the LGBTQ community and the world’s response in the form of the Women’s March. We’re always taking two steps forward and three steps back. Women and people in general are complicated and layered, neither angel nor devil, but both. My interest is in what makes us lean from one end of the spectrum to the other.
What I’m interested in about the final girl is that she is the last one alive, and she is the one left to tell the story. The final girl is a trope in horror, especially slasher films, and how she is perceived is also complicated. On the one hand, she is a badass and comes out alive, which is cool, but she is also usually white and can be seen as a sexualized fantasy for men. I think the love and disdain of these two versions of the final girl are why I am interested in her, and I’m curious to play with the idea and identity of the final girl in my work.
RM: You’ve also expressed an interest in horror as a genre. What is it about horror and cinema that you’re particularly drawn to?
MM: My interest in horror is in its evolution and how it served as a salve or catalyst for society to deal with the fear of others. I’m not really interested in slasher films. A lot of my focus is on individuals who in the end are human. They have aspects that show good and bad, and there are reasons for who they are. Vintage horror or a good psychological horror film is where it’s at for me. I love Pre-Code films as a way of looking at views of society in the not-too-distant past. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see what directors and studios did before they were censored, but it’s also horrific to see the white male lens projecting reality as a subculture. Making women, foreigners, and any person with bodily difference the monster is based purely on society’s expectations and women’s resistance to those expectations. Right now I’m thinking of films like Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Häxen (1922), or Freaks (1932), which have women who play a range of “monsters”: divorcees, seducers, witches, lesbians, and independent and strong women. Again, depending on whose lens we see them through, which might depend on the time period or the national context, our focus on them as good or bad changes.
RM: Do you have a favorite final girl?
MM: My favorite final girl could be a she, he, S(he), s(He) or those beyond pronouns, but they are a real individual, not a fantasy, because we definitely have a world history filled with horror and a present horror we face daily, so my “final girl” is everyone who is now fighting for their daughters, mothers, and grandmothers, but also themselves and the betterment of everyone.
RM: With the recent political upheaval, there is obviously a great deal of concern for those already facing societal disregard (people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, etc.). This seems incredibly relevant to your practice and falls under what you’ve referred to as real American horror. How do these more current and experiential events affect how you approach the topics in your work?
MM: To be honest, this current shit show has me reeling. I’m seeing all of my past research now as a present reality and a threat. You approached me right around the election, and since then I’ve been trying to answer your questions at the same time as I’m trying to figure out how to deal with this new reality as a human being, a teacher, and an artist. What I’ve come to is that I need to keep active and proactive. I cannot look to the future without remembering the hope of the past. To many, my work seems dark, but the truth is it has always been about hope and perseverance. Knowing that we have been fighting these fights for generations and now seeing people out protesting en masse is just one sign of our progress as a country despite the continued abuse of power and the resurgence of overt patriarchy.
My current studio research involves thinking about horror films and focusing on films of my childhood with othered protagonists, like Carrie (1976) and Firestarter (1984), and I’m also thinking about the relationship of comedy to tragedy.
It’s all so surreal, as I consider my work as alternate realities and now Trump’s new world view with “alternative facts.” I guess I’ll continue to look to the past, but this time perhaps I’ll try to direct the conversation using more humor and satire. Maybe it’s time to rewatch Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). In addition, I’ll look to my friends and fellow artists to help start fires and keep them burning. I actually have been researching a film Chaplin started in 1969 called The Freak, which he never finished. It’s a comic drama about a young South American girl who unexpectedly sprouts a pair of wings. She’s kidnapped and taken to London, where her captors cash in by passing her off as an angel (Joseph Merrick reference?). She later escapes, is arrested because of her appearance, and eventually stands trial to determine if she is human at all. I’m imagining her with the will of Hell-Cat Maggie as the perfect final girl and a great push for me to get off my ass and start kicking ass in the studio again.
RM: Can you leave our readers with a list of recommendations for them?
MM: Yes! My blog has all of this and more, but here is my hit list in the studio today.
Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Rebecca Marino is co-editor of Conflict of Interest and works as a visual artist and curator in Austin, TX.