New York Art World

Melissa McGill
 — By Donald Goddard



 St. Theresa of Avila was born in 1515, visited by Christ in about 1558 or ‘60, wrote intense documents of her life and spiritual experience, founded a series of convents throughout Spain, died in 1582, and was canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV along with SS. 

Isidro, Ignatius of Loyola, and Francis Xavier, the latter two also heroes of the Counter-Reformation. In 1645-52, Gian Lorenzo Bernini created the Altar of St. Theresa for the Cornaro Chapel of the church of S. Maria della Vittoria in Rome, choosing to show Theresa in ecstasy at the moment she is visited by Christ in the form of an angel of God aiming an arrow for her heart (or more precisely for a place lower down on her body). 

The two life-size figures, beneath shafts of light coming from above, are framed at the center of the chapel directly above the altar by porphyry columns supporting a great curved pediment, and four members of the Cornaro family, who commissioned the work, are portrayed in a gallery at the left side of the chapel, not necessarily paying attention, as indeed it is perhaps beyond their ability to do so. Enfolded in her nun’s robes, Theresa half reclines on a cloud, her eyes closed and mouth open, her naked left hand and foot dangling helplessly. The angel smiles. 

There is nothing dubious about this image, only it is extremely sensuous, and that is the meaning and substance of its spirituality. It is a miraculous burst of languor, which occupies the entire space of the chapel, whether the Cornaros know it or not. As in perhaps no other religious setting, we are with perfect consensuality in the presence of something extraordinary, or it is in our presence. There is no doubting its reality, and no pretension that it exists only on some other plane. The principle is of the relationship between a man and a woman, with every part of the pattern, the waves of drapery, of gesture and expression, proceeding from that relationship.

Melissa McGill recognizes that these phenomena of someone living in the 16th century and of someone embodying her experience in the 17th century already exist. They are not negligible or past or something to be dismissed as part of another time and mindset. They occupy a significant place in the world, at least as significant as our own place. Having established their particular claims on time and space, they are part of the time and space in which we all live, part of our experience. In McGill’s Shadow of Ecstasy, only the shadows of Bernini’s figures are given form, an expanded pattern of flat, black rubber shapes that extends from one wall to the adjacent one like a disturbance of nature, a trajectory of water cast from the original work, each attenuated drop of which contains worlds of its own yet depends utterly on its place within the pattern. 

The shadows that comprise this work might have been blown by the wind, from another time to this one. Here and Now is a floor installation of ten perfect mirrored-glass globular shapes blown by the artist, also like drops of water, but expanded and now at various states of rest. They are of this time. The globules are actually different shapes, higher or flatter, and range in diameter from three to nineteen inches. They are perhaps eternal volumes, determined by physical laws, but they are always in the present, reflecting and distorting, naturally, what is there. Of course, what is there is seen differently in each flattened or heightened sphere (including the reflections in other spheres), and what cannot be seen on the other side of each volume is nonetheless there, though in proving that one loses sight of earlier moments, though not, reassuringly, of oneself. Each is an expanding, or shrinking, universe in which everything is contained, an inversion of the scattered energy pattern of Shadow of Ecstasy.

Between these two extremes, both formally abstract, are a series of figurines and a group of nearly life-size figures in stark white glazed porcelain. They seem to be in the process of becoming, and the form they are taking is human, feminine usually, with heads (often bowed), hair, breasts, skirts, only the beginnings of arms (perhaps like the Venus de Milo). There is something vaguely 19th-century about them, in dress but also in demeanor and in their likeness to Victorian and popular statuary, as though they were emerging from a time that still represents the most powerful images of intelligent feminine life. They seem nearly shadowless, clothed but seeking a way to be naked, to be human.