Simon Baker: Hands Holding the Void

Nothing disappears completely… nor can what subsists be defined solely in terms of traces, memories or relics. In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows.

-Henri Lefebvre

Melissa McGill operates precisely through the rhetoric of the production of space. This assertion is implicit in the processes by which her sculptures are produced but is articulated most explicitly by the autonomous results of this process, that is to say, by the works themselves. Nothing disappears completely, and yet, the flawless porcelain forms, “personages” as they would once have been known, have the most fragile of relationships to the spaces that gave shape to them; spaces which they seem subsequently to have outgrown to the point of near complete contradiction. But what came first continues to underpin what follows. That is to say that facing the finished work, an absent original suggests itself, remains in the corner of the eye; an eye necessarily cast askance.

It is, after all, just possible to make out the most elementary details of Bernini’s Baroque sculpture The Ecstasy of St Teresa in McGill’s wall drawing Shadow of Ecstasy, but to seek to resolve the original work through the refracting lens of its descendant is to fall for too seductive a resolution. The mannerist flourishes, which stigmatise the original, refuse to disappear completely, suspending a memory of the billowing marble somewhere between the present work and its satisfactory apprehension. Indeed, the material that McGill uses in her work, a slick, reflective black rubber, offers far more than a representation of the shadows cast in and by Bernini’s sculpted marble surface. The patches of rubber account collectively for the play of light over the surface of Bernini’s sculpture, captured by camera, and projected, multiplied and reversed over the gallery wall. Once installed, these painstakingly cast “shadows” offer their own responses to light, both individually and collectively, as the viewer moves within the space of the work. In places, the arrangements of shiny black forms double, as they in turn catch the light reflected across the corners around which they spread: found forms multiply, gesture to one another and generate their own intricacies. This complex play of reflections is an evident in photographs of the finished work as the shadows in the photographic projections on which it was  based.

A very different set of photographs help to situate McGill’s untitled porcelain personages: smiling, colourful figurines, brilliantly lit and uncannily close: coy pixies, blushing urchins, diminutive oriental figures, a metallic shirted accordion player with a miniscule head. Without the aesthetic gloss of professional photography, the ensemble could perhaps suggest the disinterested acquisition of unfashionable collectables. But these merry figurines, found and redeemed, are connected with the ghostly porcelain forms that they introduce in the strangest possible way.

The result of the process by which these ornamental crimes were mass-produced means that within each tiny figure is a previously unlooked for, unheeded space. It is these spaces that McGill has found and subsequently reconstituted. So the tiny, disproportionate accordion player contains the form of a porcelain sculpture many times larger than itself. But the mute form of the personage speaks only of a relationship to a body of sorts, never once admitting its humble origins. The fantasy of art, Lefebvre tells us, “is to lead out of what is present, what is close, out of representations of space, into what is further off,” into what he calls “representational spaces.”[1] As the gap opens up between representations of space and representational spaces, flowing robes cease to articulate a simple opposition between positive and negative, matter and void, a hand and the gaps between its fingers.

In McGill’s sculpture, the concept of space is always contingent. Progress towards the autonomous object through the process of its facture depends upon breaking the umbilical cord that ties it to its origin without ever completely disavowing existence of the place of origin or its derivative status. So the photograph of the accordion player can be present for the sculpture to which it relates without either work dpeenidng on the other. But in the course of its production and subsequent reception, the finished work turns against and opposes its progenitor, not only through its form but its scale, colour and surface. These descriptive differences are key to the principle antinomies of abstraction and legibility: through what can accurately be called a process of abstraction, an easily recognizable figure offers something disarmingly unlike itself. In these terms, abstraction, rather than operating in opposition to figuration, is confirmed as that which figuration produces under pressure. The accordion player is really legible, while its sculpted counterpart resists, rather than refuses, the idea of the body in a series of counterpoints.

The contradiction in scale is the most immediately obvious; after all, the porcelain personage is many times larger than the original space from which it was drawn. Elsewhere in McGill’s work, both rubber and porcelain forms were cast to the same scale as the original objects and, like their forebears, were displayed and photographed in groups. In this way, the found, cast interiors of absent others retained a collective identity, suggested by their scale, but confirmed by a gentle morphological gradient from near-complete figure to unidentifiable abstract form. The contradiction in scale generated by the large personages is reinforced by the transformation in colour and tone from polychrome exuberance to neutral monochrome. However, given that it is the internal logic of the original figure that is relevant here, what occurs is less of a rejection of colour than a reversal of surfaces. The surface usually left unfinished, facing the void inside the object, is reversed and accorded the fine polish normally reserved for exterior. This observation hinges upon the underlying assumptions about the hierarchy of surface quality, where the investment in the degree of finish guarantees the status of the work as final, complete and aesthetically autonomous. 

A further feature of the porcelain personage is that it too was cast and finished and it too contains its own internal space, suggesting far more than just anamorphic similarity: a narrative of infinite regression, Russian dolls, an endless series of found spaces. This is familiar territory; McGill’s versions of originals generate their own continuities, a void here in place of the reflections, created within and across Shadow of Ecstasy. The care and attention that McGill offers these foundlings, evident in photographs of the artist at work at the Kohler porcelain factory, stands in stark contrast to both the production-line paint job of the accordion player and the limits that time and motion studios impose on the commercial products to whom the personages are cousins, many times removed.

Despite the series of oppositional aspects of the relationship between form and space there remains the material continuity: the porcelain itself, transformed, made unlike itself, uncomfortable with it’s own skin. Porcelain could be said to have its own significance, from fragile (and thus precious) commercial collectibles to industrial-strength, mass-produced toilets and bath tubs. Fountain, Marcel Duchamp’s most famous porcelain “sculpture” offers an inviting point of reference for McGill’s work, which returns to the source material of the original readymade to reroute the found object in the direction of the found space. Fountain, however, like the accordion player, was only the beginning of a process of abstractions from the original object to a finished sculptural form. The result of the simplest act of appropriation, Fountain was subsequently complicated by the intervention of Alfred Steiglitz. In the light and shadow of an ordinary urinal, as it lay on its porcelain back, Steiglitz photographed the miraculous outline of the Madonna, her intimate plumbing crudely denoted by the shadow cast in a pipe hole.

There is no direct analogy or historical precedent for McGill’s work in this anecdote. Rather what it offers is evidence of a pre-existing logic of appropriate and contingency that binds the production of sculpture to the production of space. And that implicit in this process is the distance generated by the camera lens. The nature o the relationship between points of origin and the works themselves is that of an oppositional contingency sustained by resolute independence. The spaces found and produced are related in such a way that nothing disappears as completely as fact of the link between them. As Lefebvre suggests, “relative spaces, for their part, secrete and absolute.”[2]


-Simon Baker

[1] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Blackwell: Oxford, 1991), 231-2

[2] Ibid, 233