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San Francisco
Interview with Heather McGill
by Matthew Troy Mullins

Santa Fe, Feb. 2012 - Heather McGill’s sculptures and works on paper are a perfect blend of spontaneity with engineering.  They simultaneously indulge in a hand-made, touched quality while embracing a mass-produced and gesture-free aesthetic.  Her surfaces are pristine.  They have the perfected artificial sweetness of a maraschino cherry.  But, underneath this veneer are hours of human labor, intention and a refreshing sense of exploration and play.  

I had a few questions for the artist after seeing her work at Dwight Hackett Projects, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  We live several thousand miles apart and decided to have our conversation via email.

Heather McGill is the head of the sculpture department at Cranbrook University and has recently won the Kresge Artist Fellowship.  Heather McGill has an upcoming show at the Ellen Miller Gallery, in Boston, MA.

Heather McGill, Second Best and Scraps and Makeshifts, 2009, Lacquer, urethane and aluminum, 96" x 49" x 2"; Courtesy of the artist

Matthew Mullins: What is your planning process like for your large sculptures?  To me, they feel very playful and spontaneous, yet they are made with materials (steel, urethane paint) that don’t seem to lend themselves to that level of spontaneity.  How much is planned and what are the surprises you encounter during the building process?

Heather McGill:   The fabrication of the sculpture embraces both a studied engineering and reactive spontaneity.  Scale, mass, the effect of gravity, are issues that are resolved before the piece is actually built, not discovered through the process of building.  All of the shapes are derived from objects that were mass-produced and therefore have a real world referent. Scale shifting, in relation to the real world referent is a significant aspect of the pieces to discuss power and authority in our world. I consider the painting of my sculptures an equal component of building, with color and pattern. The veneer of sprayed pigments is ultra thin, but can optically restructure the mass they are applied to. Color is always relational (one color next to another or over another) and this happens in the spray booth at the time of application.  I have learned to never over-determine the paint job, just start with a hunch or a desire to see a pigment/pattern on a shape, load the gun and pull the trigger.

Heather McGill, Cluster Thruster, 2011, 40" X 33.5", Cut paper, pigment; Courtesy of the artist

MM:   Would you agree that there is a dialogue between the artifice of mass-production and the craft of the hand-made in your work?   Your pieces maintain a sense of human touch, although you seem to distance your hand from your materials.  An example of this would be using pieces of laser cut paper but then assembling the pieces by hand, with seemingly spontaneous decision making.   To me, the result is an interesting balance of feeling like a product and a hand-made object.    

HM:    Yes, definitely and this dialogue embraces the friction between the romantic and pragmatic.  That feel of “artifice, the inorganic or the synthetic” references the original mass-produced object I derive the shape from, the use of digital technologies, as well as pigment application. In the construction of both the drawings and sculpture, I use the laser to cut multiple and identical parts.  But there is a continual interplay between the manual (the hand) and digital in the construction of my work. The use of sprayed pigments creates a mechanically wrought and gesture-free finish. This seamlessness belies the hours of physical labor required to prepare the surfaces or the endless gluing of paper parts back to a whole or the hand taping and stenciling of plaids and patterns. The contradiction between what we see (the state of the object) and our romance with the historical signifiers of creativity is an important component of my work.

MM:  Your series of work on paper titled Thruster Cluster is based on a quote from one of your favorite authors: “The road to life is cluttered with clowns and Neanderthals, the secret of survival is to laugh on cue and convince them of their superiority.”   How does this quote relate with the worldview you are weaving into these pieces?

HM:   The author’s reduction of humanity to two stereotypes really expressed my frustration with sexism and power structures. The paper work from 2011 was based solely on this quote; it sums up our need to adapt to these ubiquitous and engrained paradigms. The clown is simultaneously attractive and repulsive, funny and sadistic, as the Neanderthal caricature represents stasis in the continuum of the evolution of ideas and culture.

Heather McGill, Means of Self-Narcosis, 1995, 82" x 78" x 4", Lacquer, Urethane foam; Courtesy of the artist

MM:  I’m interested in the ways that your piece Means of Self-Narcosis questions the relationship between painting and sculpture and also the museum institution’s role of presentation and authority.  Can you please comment on that?

HM:   The title  “Means of Self-Narcosis” was taken from the writings of Nietzsche who I was attempting to read in the 1990’s. The exhibition was a concept that was popular at the time, asking artists to intervene with a museum collection. I chose the luminist Room, an American style of painting referencing the period from 1850-1870’s. My piece was installed over the Frederic Church painting, Syria by the Sea. As your question implies the piece was interpreted as antagonistic to the primacy of painting and critical of the manifest destiny doctrine, which generated much of the content of the imagery. However my primary desire was not to exclusively critique, but to also show a continual thread of interest in the phenomenon of “light” by artists, however divergent it manifests. The self-induced narcosis is this preoccupation with light, gesture-less craft and attention to detail, despite time and politics.

MM: Are there any influences early in life, before your career as an artist, that you see influencing your work today?

HM:   My seduction with fetish finishes is rooted in custom car and particularly surf culture. My family spent the summers in a small town on the coast of California, which was (then) inhabited by working class families escaping the heat of the central valley. California mythologizes itself with constructs of leisure and pleasure and the attending accoutrements. One intuits very early that only surface communicates.

ArtSlant would like to thank Heather McGill for her assistance in making this interview possible.

--Matthew Mullins

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