Memphis Playbook

Grace and serenity, inside-out
 — By Fredric Koeppel


If you’re nervous, stressed out, beset by slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, you could do worse than go to Power House this weekend and next and sit in the two-story South Gallery in the midst of Melissa McGill’s installations, “Here and Now” and “Boomerang.” 

These immensely quiet and calming works, spare, elegant and Zen-like, fill the tall gallery with a sense of unassertive expansiveness far beyond their material presence. 

English writer G.K. Chesterton wrote that the most disturbing object he had ever encountered was the word “coffeeshop” seen backward on the front door from inside the establishment.

McGill, who lives in New York, is concerned with that sense of the uncanny and the heretofore unrecognizable, with reality turned inside-out to reveal a different form of the real, the interior real. For example, in five silver gelatin prints titled “Shadows,” McGill takes images photographed in streets in Brooklyn early in the morning, when the straight sunlight makes long shadows, and displays them upside-down, so the shadows receive more prominence than the people who cast them. With their high contrast between black and white tones and their feeling of dissociation, the images re-order our comprehension of hierarchy and order. 

These photographs are displayed in Power House’s upstairs North Gallery, along with five untitled porcelain sculptures derived from rubber castings made inside figurines the artist found at flea markets. Enlarging these castings and casting them in turn in porcelain, McGill creates, in essence, inside-out sculptures, their surfaces exquisitely pure, white, smooth and graceful, that project a universal, perhaps even mythical abstraction of femininity. 

Power House’s South Gallery, with its breadth and soaring ceiling and industrial roughness, isn’t easy to work with, yet McGill’s economical gestures make accommodation to the crude space seem second nature. “Here and Now,” consisting of 10 slightly flattened black glass spheres of different sizes, is positioned on the white floor seemingly at random, though the second impression is of inevitability. Because of the impeccable craft of their making, because of the imperturbable self-enclosure of their regard, any arrangement would feel perfect because they exist so much within themselves. 

The 40 mirrored pieces of “Boomerang,” ranging from 2 to 8 inches each, resemble globules of mercury thrown against the walls of the gallery, some adhering in chinks and holes, others sticking to seams and uneven places. The mirror surface of McGill’s “Boomerang” droplets lend them an air of alien otherness; if these are tears, they seem those of a monumental entity beyond our ken. Mainly on the east and south walls of the gallery, slightly above eye-level, these glossy, gleaming globules further animate an already active surface — a subtle sense of play is at work — laying claim to the work’s title, just as the imperturbable poise of the black glass pieces embodies the principle of “Here and Now.” 

Taken together, in their serene power and artful sensibility, these works do to Power House what Wallace Stevens’s jar, in the poem “Anecdote of the Jar,” does to the Tennessee wilderness surrounding it; they bring new order and take “dominion everywhere … (l)ike nothing else in Tennessee.” – Fredric Koeppel

–Melissa McGill: ‘Otherside’ At Power House, 45 G.E. Patterson, through Nov. 28