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Train of Thought

"Lighthouse (Hotel New Empire)," 2010; Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Santa Monica-based artist Michael C. McMillen's evocative retrospective is currently on view at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). The title comes from his kinetic sculpture Train of Thought (1990), in which a small wooden trestle with a motorized track emerges from a museum wall and stops abruptly over the viewer's head. The track gently conveys five hundred pounds of tiny alphabet noodles that fall letter by letter into an accumulating pile of macaroni. The seventy pieces that constitute Train of Thought are overwhelmingly good humored, beautifully crafted, unsettling, and philosophical, gently poking fun at the vulnerability and absurdity of human existence.

In this exhibition, McMillen uses the museum itself as site. His paintings, drawings, assemblages, sculptures, and installations are placed throughout the museum as interventions that dialogue with OMCA's freshly reinstalled collection of California art. Walking through the exhibition, one towers over small-scale boats, airplanes, and hotels taken from the vernacular of mid-century American landscape, literature, and films. His piece Raft of History (1984) is a shipwreck placed directly across from a William T. Wiley installation called How to Chart a Course (1971), which looks like a three-dimensional treasure map.

I was familiar with McMillen's Aristotle's Cage (1983), which is on permanent view in the museum. Entering through a torn screen door into a darkened space, the viewer encounters a miniature diorama in which a decrepit trailer is set against an orange sky in a desolate desert landscape dotted with oil drums, American cars, and other refuse of modern American life. The lights are on in the trailer and in the factory in the distance. This piece uses the allegory of Plato's Cave and examines the line between appearance and reality. McMillen strategically combines found objects with his own fabrications, examining the mysterious afterlife of objects and how they connect with poetry, the paranormal, dreams, popular culture, and science fiction.

The 1950s and '60s Los Angeles of McMillen's youth was crisscrossed by freeways, anchored by the aerospace industry, spooked by post-war nightmares, and colored by the tacky Southern California beach culture of Venice Beach and the Pacific Ocean Park. Raised by his grandparents in Santa Monica, McMillen was influenced by the Hollywood dream factory and its working class artisans, including his dad, a scene designer for TV, and his next-door neighbor Kenneth Strickfaden, who designed the electrical effects and machines for the first Frankenstein movie in 1931. McMillen himself also worked as a prop designer in Hollywood.


"Red Trailer Motel," 2003; Courtesy of the Artist and L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.

McMillen's 1973 graduate show at UCLA was a storefront installation in Venice called The Traveling Mystery Museum. The piece was staged at a local shopping mall, and shoppers encountered an ancient mummy (fabricated by McMillen) displayed in a glass case, predating the better known Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City. A number of pieces from The Traveling Mystery Museum are included in the current OMCA show, including Spy Fly (1973), a diagrammatic drawing of a video drone disguised as a fly, the fabricated mummy head, the floor plans of The Traveling Mystery Museum, and the bottled last words of Picasso, certified by one Dr. P. Bernal. Although he was a generation younger, McMillen was influenced by Los Angeles' visual Beats, a group that included collage and assemblage artists Edward Kienholz and George Herms.

Pavilion of Rain (1987), Lighthouse (Hotel New Empire) (2010), and Red Trailer Motel (2003) are large-scale installations in three self-contained rooms at the rear of the exhibition and are reminiscent of McMillen's earlier installation Central Meridian (aka the Garage) (1981). The Garage was an homage to his grandfather and neighbor, Strickfaden, taking the form of a life-size garage installed in The Museum as Site: Sixteen Projects (1981) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Pavilion of Rain is a corrugated metal shack with a rain shower timed for every twenty minutes. The ramshackle structure is placed in a thirty-six-foot-long pool of water. It is fitted with survival gear including a surfboard, baby buggy, and a real diving suit with a pair of lead shoes gifted to him by longtime friend and curator Philip Linhares. Red Trailer Motel is an L-shaped facade with four doors. The first door has the rules of the motel posted next to a locked door. The other three doors have peepholes with which one can view magnified miniature rooms with mysterious goings-on. Directly across the room is a kinetic monochromatic red wall with an installation called Time Below (2004), which features an aerial view of Red Trailer Motel. Lighthouse (Hotel New Empire) is a scale model of a hotel precariously supported by posts in a vat of swirling water with a filmy sheen. The hotel has a billboard that also doubles as a projection screen showing his recent film Quotidian Man (2009).

McMillen's pieces alternate between the forgotten motel at the end of the road, hosted by Norman Bates, and a rustic temple where one can make an offering. His work is concerned with the contemplation of time: whether he uses an underlying nostalgic film noir-fueled anxiety, a futurist Blade Runner nightmare, or the counting of beans, as in his piece Deliverance (1993). McMillen makes poetic signs and markers, and even places of refuge along the way, but we will never know where we are going, how long it will take, and what we will find.

Train of Thought is on view through August 14, 2011 at the Oakland Museum of California. For more information visit museumca.org.

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NOTES:

In conjunction with this review, the author conducted an interview with Michael C. McMillen on April 29, 2011, and an interview with Philip Linhares on June 3, 2011.

This article was originally published by Art Practical, an online magazine providing comprehensive analysis of Bay Area visual arts events and exhibitions.

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