Margaret Nielsen’s visual accent has shifted over the past forty years, but her essential vocabulary has remained tightly focused. Rather than recreate the symbols of poetic psychology, Nielsen adopted known, accepted imagery and used it to create vastly more complex scenes than Freud could have ever imagined. “Nielsen is able to zero in on generalized yet complex psychological states.” (Michael Duncan, Art in America, 1995)

Over the decades her elemental terms of address have combined in increasingly odd situations, starting in the early surrealistic work in 1972. Fish swim in the carpet while sofa cushions wallow in the depths of ornate comfort (pictured above, Untitled, 1973); In this ink-on-paper work, Nielsen illustrates the irrational fears of living alone: childhood dreams of monsters under the bed are fleeting, but the midafternoon paralysis of single domesticity can swallow a lifetime. Nielsen deftly captures the strange realness of our unfounded neuroses with a confident, knowing hand. 

Nielsen’s work ranges from dot-pattern ink drawings to rich, dark, varnished oil on panel, yet in any format we can see the same principles at work (or at play.) At the base level of her work is this: “The awakening of the self is paid for by the acknowledgment of power as the principle of all relation.” (Hackman quoting Horkheimer and Adorno, 1995) Either in balancing, submitting, wielding or denying, Nielsen shows how we are always acting in deference to power and its necessary presence. In her work we can see that the vitality of life lies in between people, in the relationships that free us, yet paralyze us at the same time.

Relationships are the main playing field for Nielsen’s work, whether just beginning, wallowing in the doldrums, or burning brightly (while burning up entirely.). The delicate, fickle and vulnerable qualities of birds are the perfect analogy for romantic relationships, none more so than in “Heart Felt” (1997) where a bird in mid-flight, chest glowing red, wings a-flutter, gets poked right through the heart by a blue-tinted human hand. The shock and outrage we can see in the painting is the same feeling we have when we first realize that love does, indeed, hurt.