— By CLAIRE MITCHELL
SCULPTOR MELISSA MCGILL TURNS NEGATIVE SPACE INTO POSITIVELY HAUNTING ART.
The space between us is full of fleeting glances, loaded sighs, and whispers – exchanges that we pay little attention to. But these are the intangibles that take shape in the work of Melissa McGill. “I work with a lot of different materials, and the common link between them is a much more conceptual one than a physical one, she says. “I’ve been working with this idea of the hidden inside, negative space, giving form to the unseen.”
Since graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991, McGill has taken on blown mirrored glass, cast wax, and rubber. Her latest work takes porcelain to strange new places. “I started casting the insides of porcelain figurines that I found at flea markets. I was interested in the space that was inside,” says McGill. By pouring liquid rubber inside common figurines, and then cracking them open after the rubber hardens, a small out-of-focus shape emerges-like the little soul of your grandmother’s favorite piece of kitsch. But those rubber molds take on an even more spectral quality when they’re cast in white porcelain.
“It was 1995 when I started casting these porcelain figurines,” she says “Then this wonderful thing happened, I got a residency through the Arts Industry Program with the Kohler company. (Yes, the same folks who probably made your toilet-and not coincidentally pioneers in the field of porcelain casting.) I chose three of the small casts and had them enlarged to life-size via a five-axis scanner and a CNC milling machine, and then I shipped those to the Kohler factory in Wisconsin.
“I had no experience with ceramics, and when I arrived a lot of the Kohler guys there said that my molds were just too big to be cast successfully.” Undeterred, McGill set an arduous schedule for herself, getting up at 5 am., seven days a week for three months, to work on 70-inch, 1,500-pound plaster molds. “You put so much faith into it. I [had to] cast my molds 35 times to get 10 pieces [that didn’t break], but I did it, and in the end produced some of the largest successful casts ever made at Kohler.
McGill insists that there was more to it than sheer fortitude. “The people who work in the factory were so unbelievably generous and helpful to me, she says. “I can not tell you how grateful I am for the incredible opportunity, and the incredible spirit, helpfulness, and interest. I baked a lot of cookies before I left!”
Her hard work and baking skills paid off. McGill’s work appears this summer at The White Cube, a trendsetting gallery in London’s East End. The sculptures are ghostly, dreamlike white figures that make the viewer appreciate the presence of the unseen. And that goes for the sculptor herself: “Sometimes when I see them, I have to pinch myself to understand that they are really standing there.”