Heather McGill
Catalog Essay by: Diana Gaston, for the exhibition Dear Things, Sweet Things

Taking in the increasingly complex sculptural works of Heather McGill is a battle of contrasts. Surface and ground duke it out, with cool transparent plastic overlaid on a myriad of lush hand-painted color, intricate laser-cut patterns neatly pinned down by hand stitching. A swarm of cultural references, profound and playful, banter about. She brings a new kind of meditation on volume and void, a baroque vision in plastic.

Her work with Plexiglas was inspired in part by Roland Barthes’ 1957 essay on plastics, in which he describes the ubiquitous modern material as completely lacking in ambition. For McGill, this text became a kind of challenge to make plastic not only ambitious, but luminous, even transcendent. As an artist working at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, in the suburban outskirts of Detroit, she points to the vocabulary of the American automotive industry in all its opulence and failure; this is her most constant source. Her work adapts the finishes of the looming car culture, in particular the customizers, mimicking its color and flair. The strata of plastic and ground setups up a brilliant, nearly unsettling interaction of color. The manner in which she handles these mundane industrial materials — compressing, cutting, layering, stretching, distorting, and stitching — constructs a surface that certainly trumps Barthes claim.

From a certain vantage point, her rich patterning reads as highly ordered biomorphic abstraction, but on closer inspection all kinds of specific imagery emerges. She draws upon far-flung sources for her stencil—fragments of lace, snakeskin, patterned fabrics and printed diagrams, high and low. The new work shifts between hypnotic pattern and scientific inquiry, finding structure in celestial diagrams and technological blueprints. In the s body of work, completed in an intensive nine-month period, she revisits toy models of the American space station (in 1:72 scale), and exploratory drawings of the planets. In the ultimate mash-up of post-war American industry, space exploration, and car customizers, she sifts through stuff that kids of her generation were steeped in, and fabricates it in candy-color synthetic brilliance.

McGill does not conceal her sources so much as layers them and manipulates scale to create her own form of camouflage. With the repeat of the lunar model she abstracts it in two dimensions, repeating its awkward, vaguely mechanical outline again and again almost like wallpaper. Another source is 19th century astronomical drawing, an elegant spiraling pattern of planetary rotations, here reduced to sweeping oblong discs. The treatment only underscores the artist’s fluid position between two- and three-dimensional objects, flattening out three-dimensional shapes, and building up pattern to a near three-dimensional illusion. Assembled plastic drawings occupy space like sculpture, and planar sculpture hangs like a drawing, there is not a concise boundary for her constructions. Her work reimagines industrial form and material, depth and surface, inquiry and ornamentation, all exquisitely engineered packages.