text and images courtesy of Lisa Sette Gallery
Trina McKillen, Bless Me Child For I Have Sinned, 2010-2018, glass, marble, wood, nails, metal, nickel-plated composite, linen, plexiglas, 102″ x 94″ x 58″
When Trina McKillen embarked on the creation of her resplendent, intricately detailed life-size glass confessional, Bless Me Child For I Have Sinned, she encountered responses ranging from denial to recognition, and throughout, a stark awareness of the unchecked power of the Catholic Church.
Deep institutional resistance was the context against which McKillen, who counts herself as “a shy person, not necessarily wanting to stand out,” formulated the immersive installation work that comprises the premiere of these works in her stunning debut exhibit, Confess, at Lisa Sette Gallery this September. Starting out with a vivid idea but minimal experience in the building trades, McKillen spent several years constructing her exquisitely confrontational transparent confessional booth, a transportable structure fabricated entirely of glass, metal, marble, and wood. Accompanying it is a ghostly cohort of embroidered antique vestments titled The Children once worn by children in the Catholic Church, and a series of illuminated linen “poultices” titled Stations of Hope.
Trina McKillen, The Children, 2015-2018, 20 communion dresses, 20 altar boy vestments, Irish linen, thread, gold leaf, dimensions vary
In The Children, McKillen uses vintage First Holy Communion dresses and altar boy vestments to represent the seemingly invisible nature of the crimes of the Church. Every garment and embroidered symbol signifies that each child suffered their own unique pattern of abuse in silence and secret. McKillen said she “felt compelled to create something that would make the children visible.”
Early in the confessional’s production, a glass technician and a draftsperson both left abruptly upon comprehending the content of the piece. One of them, recalls McKillen, “Saw the chair in the booth, saw what I was doing with this piece, said ‘Oh my god, I grew up with this shit,’ and ran down the stairs from my studio and never came back again.”
McKillen realized that it was necessary to conceal the intent of her project. When subcontractors came to her studio she removed the confessional’s delicate, child-sized upholstered chair, and, on the other side of the booth’s intersecting panel of glass, the corresponding priest-sized confessional kneeler, with its steely cushion of nails. “Most of the people who worked on the components for this, they do not know to this day what they helped me build.”
Trina McKillen, The Children (detail image)
McKillen possesses a unique awareness of the denial and secrecy built into society’s proscriptive power structures: growing up in a traditional Irish Catholic family in the sectarian Belfast of the 60’s and 70’s, her father, a respected businessman, clandestinely engaged in peace negotiations with the British. In response, McKillen’s childhood home was ransacked; bombs exploded outside her front door. When her family moved to Dublin to avoid further retaliation, McKillen sensed an unwillingness to confront the realities of Northern Ireland’s troubles and the not always beneficent role of the Catholic Church.
Early in her life, McKillen, one of nine siblings, felt that the Church’s purported reverence for children was in fact a proxy for a simple war of numbers with Protestants. “This idea of children being important… I knew, as a child, that it was this idea of outnumbering the other side, in order to bully them the way they bullied you. From the beginning I always had a deep feeling that actually, the children themselves did not matter.”
As she entered young adulthood, McKillen found herself visiting a friend in the psychiatric ward of a Dublin Hospital; the once-spirited and talkative girl was curled into a fetal position, nearly comatose at the foot of her bed. It was only then that McKillen was informed that her friend had been habitually raped in childhood by an uncle, a respected Catholic priest.
Trina McKillen, Bless Me Child For I Have Sinned (detail image)
McKillen hastened from Ireland to an expansive life as a set designer in Los Angeles, but an unease with the Catholic Church that shaped her childhood simmered in her subconscious, hinted at in lush photographs and assemblages of the small, symbolic items that McKillen reflexively collected: babydolls, textiles, and religious paraphernalia, objects imbued with both ritual beauty and shame. Intrinsic to these lush and often lovely works is a sense of aesthetic evidence-gathering, a secret recordkeeping. McKillen’s works exhibit a keen recognition of objects that reveal a hidden story.
As the child-abuse within the Catholic Church was uncovered in revelations of increasing horror and magnitude, and as the Church continued to evade culpability and transparency, McKillen’s subject matter came into stark focus. “I had the idea in my head, of what would God do if he came down and saw this… And then the glass confessional just came to me. I thought, ‘I’m going to make the Church kneel in front of the child.’”
McKillen’s immersive exhibit at Lisa Sette Gallery — a meticulously constructed installation that ranges across the gallery, required that the artist reconcile not only with problems of construction and engineering, but of her own internalized fear of standing out. Now, however, she says, “I’m mainly just very excited about this confessional, this gigantic piece of work, finally making its maiden voyage.”
An opening reception with the Artist will be held on
Saturday, September 15, 2018 from 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.