McMillen exhibit opens at OMCA

McMillen exhibit opens at OMCA:

Found art, large-scale installations join California Art section

by Ryan Ariel Simon

Michael McMillen is a quintessential California artist. After a childhood in Los Angeles, and contact with Hollywood films, experimentation seems intrinsic to him.

He is also a quintessential American artist.

Inspired by his travels across the country, McMillen reflects the American experience and ethos back at his viewers through an examination of our material culture and by creating “poems” in films and large-scale installations that depict images of American life in the 20th Century.

“I have an idea where it will end up, but don’t start with a goal,” said McMillen of his work. “That’s the fun part.”

Appropriate then that he views his work as a “bridge between old history and family, and new,” as “Michael C. McMillen: Train of Thought” is a survey exhibition of his work spanning his 40-year career, compiled with longtime collaborator and the Oakland Museum of California’s (OMCA) chief curator of art, Phillip Linhares.

The Tower was invited to walk  through a tour of his films, sculptures, and installations found in the California Art section of the museum with the curator and the artist himself during an April 14 media preview at the OMCA.

Spread throughout the section, McMillen’s work integrates itself well with the rest of the exhibits, though it will engender a second look if you’re not on a dedicated tour.

Michael C. McMillen. Picasso's Last Words, 1995, wood, metal, glass and gas construction. ©Michael C. McMillen

“Picasso’s Last Words” (in an homage to the Paul McCartney song) is a nicely aged dusty bottle fabricated in 1995. It captured the breath of Picasso before he died to allow us to “hear Picasso’s last words once again,” McMillen said. “His last words were spoken into a bottle, later sealed with wax to preserve his breath. Perhaps future technology will allow us to convert his breath back into sound.”

“The blending of truth and fiction is a long-standing practice in the arts,” McMillen said in an email. “The ‘origin’ story that I mentioned for “Red Trailer Motel” was fictional.”

In this piece, a scale birds-eye view model of a motel sits on a solid red wall opposite from the life-size installation, shadows extending long along the wall as a light turns slowly on the ceiling.

“I made [the original story] up in 2003 as a back-story to fit the locale in which Red Trailer was first presented, in Laramie, Wyoming.

The actual metal of the structure was indeed recovered when a tornado destroyed a barn on a ranch in Wyoming.”

The “Pavilion of Rain” exhibit is even more interactive, inviting its viewers to walk over a small bridge into a rickety shack surrounded by water to explore the structure, before it’s pelted with rain from a hanging sprinkle system.

Michael McMillen describes his installation "Pavilion of Rain" standing above the pond surrounding it. ©Ryan Ariel Simon

If “Pavilion’s” post-apocalyptic ambiance is inviting and peaceful, with rain pattering the roof overhead and the pond underneath, “Aristotle’s Cage” has the opposite effect.

“The California dream crash landed,” McMillen said, smiling as he slowly opened the door to the installation kept squeaky simply by not oiling the hinge, a foreboding “Elsewhere” sign hangs overhead.

Inspired by Mohave Desert, it is a future of material culture, a lot of which ends up as waste in the desert.

Orange juice cans were recycled into the work, painted, with small metal bands looping around them to transform into oil drums, along with rocks collected from Lake Merritt, to complete the “Mad Max”-like scene.

“Permanence is a lie, so is perfection, I like to cut to the chase. Everything is somewhere between mom and the maggot,” said McMillen describing the world, humans, and both their concrete and conceptual creations.

The “Raft of History” seems mostly indicative of his work, and is a strange and disturbing display that serves to cause discomfort, yet obsession about its meaning.

“The presence of the religious and political symbols is deliberate. A multitude of competing symbols on the same wrecked ship. Makes one stop and think, doesn’t it?” McMillen said in an email.

The installation that stands out the most was not included in the OMCA exhibit due to cost and space issues; however, an 11-minute documentary appears as a stand-in.

“An implication of temporariness and transit, unrefined and ad hoc. We’re no longer in the museum,” McMillen said of the film screening room decor.

As one sits down on a generic bench, or a crate, the room mimics a vintage outdoor European theater command post from World War II, with camouflage netting and leaves overhead.

“The Central Meridian,” also known as “The Garage,” is a “cultural tomb of Los Angeles and United States,” McMillen said of the absent exhibit.

The piece is currently at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and consists of an old American clunker, and over 250,000 pieces. The film documents the exhibit, and brilliantly stars McMillen’s father with eerie fifties luau music in the background, just two years before he passed away.

Like with his other works, McMillen hopes that the architecture provides common language with which viewers can relate to the installation, become part of it and be surrounded by it.

It follows then that McMillen wants people to handle some of his pieces, hoping some people enter and find more than just a garage.

He built an antechamber (tomb), and used futurist symbols such as atomic science instruments, and a bad/good meter to create a sense that the owner of the garage had been a scientific visionary.

With so many local artists embracing the eco-art movement using found materials, such as SCRAP (Scrounger’s Center for Reusable Art Parts) in San Francisco, maybe it’s fitting then that McMillen says he was a “recycler before it was fashionable.”

“Train of Thought” is on view through Aug. 14, in the Gallery of California Art.

Museum admission is $12 general, $9 for seniors and students with a valid ID, youth ages 9-17 are $6, free for OMCA members and children 8 and under.

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