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ART : He Sold His Heart to the Junkman : Michael McMillan prowls alleyways searching for discards to transform into dreamlike replicas of bygone Americana

November 28, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

McMillan became aware of the work of both those artists in the early '70s when he was attending UCLA where he studied with Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Diebenkorn. "I don't make Abstract Expressionist paintings because that's not the right vehicle for me to express what I need to say, but I think Diebenkorn did influence my work," says McMillan, who favors a muted palette and approach to composition that's very much in sync with Diebenkorn. "If you look at my work in terms of shape and color you can see these objects are really about painting and sculptural problems."

By the time McMillan graduated from UCLA with an M.F.A. in 1973 he was highly skilled as a model maker and found himself in demand in the special effects departments of the movie studios. Helping create the optical effects for such films as "Blade Runner" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he worked for the movies on and off for 14 years as a means of financing his activities as a fine artist.

"When I first started making models for movies I really struggled with the question of what makes one model an artwork while another is just a prop," he recalls. "I finally decided that the object is neutral and has no nature of its own, and that it's the artist's intent that defines it. This is one of the great lessons Duchamp taught us when he declared a urinal an artwork. What makes a bowl of fruit an artwork? Somebody has the force of personality to make it so."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 5, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 11 words Type of Material: Correction
In a profile last Sunday of Michael McMillen, the artist's name was misspelled.

Though McMillan avoids putting human figures in his pieces "because then they really scream 'doll house,' " the miniature model format works for him as a vehicle for creating fine art for several reasons. "I love small things and find something really magical about scale changes," he explains. "I'm also attracted to miniatures because it's a way of condensing architecture, which is something I really love."

McMillan's interest in architecture has led him to create dozens of sculptural works that transform the fundamental elements of mid-20th-Century American buildings--windows, doors, facades and hallways--into metaphysical metaphors.

"Architectural metaphors are always there in my work," he points out. "I suppose I see stairs as a metaphor for life itself in that one hopes there's some kind of ascension as one ages, and windows and doors signify the beyond and suggest a glimpse of another world. Hallways and corridors are about choice. You can't know where the hallway you've chosen will take you until you get there, so they're also about risk and mystery."

Talking about architecture reminds McMillan of a project he's always dreamed of doing, which he proceeds to explain. "I've always wanted to transform an abandoned hotel in a downtown area into a labyrinth of installations. I envision a hotel of maybe 100 rooms--every room would have a different installation, and at the end of the journey the viewer would be transformed as a person."

And exactly what is the transformation he hopes would take place? He pauses for a moment and gazes out the window for a minute before replying. "A more acute awareness of the richness of this visual life we're in," he concludes.

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