Born Detroit, 1966 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Royal Oak, Michigan
I have suspected for a little while that Michael McGillis is a fulcrum between divergent layers of reality. How else to explain his uncanny ability to peel back the edges of our everyday world, to uncover hidden environments just below the surface? Taken as a whole, McGillis’s work could be seen as a kind of sculptural iteration of magical realism, where undefined or fantastic realities cohabitate within the everyday fixtures that are easily taken for granted. Whether outfitting nature with chance art encounters, like Wake (2006), or constructing immersive gallery installations that synthesize nature in a controlled setting, as with Reckoning a Peripheral Wilderness (2012), McGillis confesses to an “attraction to randomness” that draws him toward found and discarded materials as the foundation for these imagined realities.
These materials—which include phragmites reeds, branches, plastic sheeting, and layers of cardboard in various states of disintegration—help McGillis to do what he terms “collaborating with chance,” but he is also quick to acknowledge an element of surrogacy in their use, with materials holding space as proxies for other things, just as his installations carve out microcosmic placeholders within reality. McGillis also enjoys playing with scale, prone to leave the viewer towering above miniature dioramas, such as Blast Fishermen, Semporna, Malaysia (2003)—with the ocean scaled to approximately half the surface of a discarded mattress—or else reduced to the perspective of a small, root-dwelling mammal housed inside a giant stump, as in Your Back to the Woods (2014).
But scale is also a mechanism of control, which McGillis wields—consciously or other- wise—to counterbalance the elements of chance that he cultivates. An old fleece jacket may trigger the revelation of a hilly landscape, but then a meticulous diorama emerges, drawing random inspiration into the tightly rendered formation of Gypsy Moth Defolia- tion and Cell Tower, Shenandoah, Virginia, part of his 2003 Micro-Disasters series. As companion to these mini-environments, McGillis’s body of sited works create situational encounters in nature, and these works—positioned to be encountered by chance—regain control through the elements of surprise, immersion, and a kind of involuntary interactivity.
Most recently, McGillis has pushed the frame even wider as he completes the first cycle of a series in Denmark, titled Sightings and Encounters, which involves the staging of mysterious events. These events are inspired by the landscapes and locales in and around three small Danish towns in Jutland, on the North Sea, and have drawn locals into the creation of these works with somewhat undefined end points. The first starting point (The Beach, 2014) is a cold, Scotland-facing shoreline of a land mass called Doggerland, replete with stones and sandy cliffs. Drawing from news accounts about whales having washed up on the beach, but also the prehistory of the place, which was for some reason spared the last ice age, McGillis “started to imagine what this area was like before anyone was there.” This line of reasoning evolved to create a “happening” of sorts, which created an opening for the examination or celebration of an occurrence on the beach, a kind of full-sized diorama in collaboration with townspeople. The artistic outcome may be an image, but then, too, it exists in people’s memories. “You walk down the beach and you see something on the horizon and you want to examine it,” McGillis says. These artifacts and experiences act as pieces of a puzzle coming together in the mind of the viewer. Cut to an interior shot, the hallway of an elementary school in the second town. At the end of the hall, what was once a bright window is now the backlit display of the skeletal remains of . . . something. This second event (The Hall, 2014) has a sanctified feel, and remained on display in the school, with little context offered to the children.
This ambiguity seems to be the locus of McGillis’s work, a battle between control and chance, leveraging existing elements as the nucleus for the crystallization of new ideas and structures, ultimately creating things that oscillate between two different states: mythology and science, nature and artifice, life and death, reality and . . . another, deeper reality, one that perhaps cannot be agreed upon universally but invites a universal sort of interest and curiosity.
Sarah Rose Sharp, April 2015
Copyright Essay’s 2015