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Castoffs get second life in Michael McMillen's hands

The Santa Monica-based artist uses discarded housewares, auto and gardening supplies in his assemblages.

July 31, 2011|By Leah Ollman, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • MULTIFACETED: Michael McMillan creates art installations and film.
MULTIFACETED: Michael McMillan creates art installations and film. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Michael McMillen describes the retrospective exhibition of his work now in its final weeks at the Oakland Museum of California as "40 years of experiments." The choice of words is characteristically deliberate. Until part way through college, McMillen aimed to be a scientist, and a spirit of inquiry — physical, historical and perceptual — permeates his work. He conducts his investigations by way of storytelling, creating palpably convincing fictions in sculpture, installation, painting and film.

The process, especially when it comes to his immersive, room-size installations, often begins with McMillen writing a verbal sketch describing the experience he hopes to conjure — what he might see, hear and smell. The feel of gravel or loose planks underfoot. The quality of light. The temperature in the air.

"I'm always trying to take the viewer out of where they think they are and maybe move across time and put them someplace else for as long as they care to be there," he says.

With "The Pavilion of Rain," originally built in 1987 and reconstructed for the Oakland show, he transports us to a little shack pieced together out of corrugated metal, old windows, wooden shutters and metal grillwork, fragments of signs captioning the exterior. It sits in a broad, shallow pool cluttered with crates, wheel rims and buckets. Viewers cross a small footbridge to get inside, gauzy veils brushing their shoulders as they enter. A rain frame suspended from the ceiling showers the makeshift shelter on a regular cycle, 20 minutes on, 10 minutes off. McMillen built the installation, something of a late-20th century response to Kurt Schwitters' "Merzbau," as an homage to his father, a scenic artist for television who died the previous year.

"It's night. It's raining," McMillen sets the scene. "We don't know where we are. We're more in nature than a city. The light coming off the water is fractured by the falling rain so it makes this beautiful, shimmering pattern wherever it's reflected. That plus the sound of the rain hitting the roof and the water has a mesmerizing effect.

"That was part of my intent, to make something that had a meditative aspect, out of materials that you never associate with being calm. The materials are all decomposing, they're rusting, they're falling apart. They're basically our societal detritus, junk that has been discarded and has no value, but when you bring them back together in this congress of matter, they take on meaning."

The backyard of McMillen's Santa Monica home is heaped with just such castoff parts and pieces: hinges, hoes and horseshoes; bedsprings and headboards; frying pans and strainers; a single oar, a puddle of chain; a breadbox filled with beakers and test tubes. Trumpet flowers climb the walls and dot the house with color. All within the yard is rust and dust, but just as fertile to McMillen, a lean, boyish 65, driven equally by earnestness and mischief.

The debris serves as raw material for sculptures and installations, and more of it is crammed into his adjacent two-story studio, where boxes shelved high above work tables are labeled "teeth," "toys," "human skeleton." His work invariably appears aged, weathered, whether he's using objects scavenged over the decades from nearby alleys, or things he's made by hand, his skills honed by a dozen years building props and sets for Hollywood films as well as a more recent stint learning hand-lettered sign painting at a local trade school. A scuffed and padlocked trunk in the Oakland show bears a stained card identifying it mysteriously as "The Box of All Knowledge" (1997). Reverse peepholes in the doors of the "Red Trailer Motel" (2003) afford views into disheveled, abandoned spaces.

Assemblage artists of the '50s and '60s who resuscitated and recombined disparate discards were an obvious influence. More surprising is the early impact of work by Hans Burkhardt, one of his undergraduate professors at Cal State Northridge. What struck McMillen wasn't Burkhardt's well-known abstract paintings but the faux antiques the elder artist made on the side, constructing them from the worst wood he could find in the lumberyard.

"I really admired that and thought about it," McMillen says. "It suited my needs, because I wanted to make things that appeared to have a previous life, a history. I wanted to imply that there was a story there."

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