by Elenore Welles

(L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice) Michael C. McMillen's fascination with the detritus of a material, additive, throw-away society reflects California's home-grown tradition of Assemblage. However, Assemblage reaches as far back as the Constructivists. From Kurt Schwitters' expressive Mertz constructions, to the fantasy strains of Dadaists, to the poetic mysticism of the Surrealists, the lineage marches on. McMillen evokes links to all these heritages, but he is closest in spirit to the esthetics of H.C. Westerman and Edward Kienholtz. They offered an appreciation of the banal, a way of perceiving ordinary things as greater than their parts when combined into a whole. By reclaiming fragments from everyday life and turning them into fantasy constructions, McMillen demonstrates how the skillful adaptation of discarded objects can preserve their integrity.


Michael McMillen,
"The Box of All Knowledge," 1997.
Photo: Brian Forrest

Fifteen years' experience building models for Hollywood movies and an abiding love of craftsmanship is visible in the amount of technical finesse applied to these intricate constructions. McMillen's passion for junk is evidenced in the huge stockpile in his backyard. Items such as plumbing valves, door hinges or typewriter keys provide impetus for his conceptual fecundity. He likes his process to be ongoing and interactive. In fact, works often appear to be in an evolving state. The viewer is brought into the process of invention and discovery.

McMillen juxtaposes objects to evoke associations and to investigate the fine line between illusion and fiction. The transmutation of matter, how it disintegrates and is reborn, inspires his art. Scientific logic and the nature of matter are terrains that often remain obscure. But he attempts to demythologize them. In the process of building his imagery he plays with the psychology of perception and the ideas those images might convey.

However, trying to penetrate obscure concepts and make them conscious is certain to lead to ambiguities. Deceptive realities can offer provocative perspectives if the viewer is committed enough. The works demand more than a cursory glance to connect all the visual fragments. Although they tend to initiate more questions than answers, the reward lies in layers of associative visions. Intercepter, for example, evokes either a machine or an insect. Bamboo tentacles rise out of a black box-like structure. It includes a propeller and encrypted messages. A robotic insect invented by man, perhaps? What makes the metaphor complete is the appearance of flux. Will the propeller spin and make it fly? Will the tentacles reach out toward an unsuspecting viewer?

Mystery is further evoked in a box fashioned by him out of steel and wood. It is called Box of All Knowledge and cannot be opened. What lies within remains a mystery, open to conjecture. Is it memorabilia, love letters, war mementos? We are not to know.

McMillen is fond of disembodied symbols. Numbers, letters and cryptic words are scattered throughout his constructions. They can be found in A Map of April, an architectonic construction that evokes a topographical terrain--fragmentary remains of an ancient civilization, perhaps. Look closely and discover common items like a thermostat regulator. A little window reveals Chinese text. A cryptic message. Like a topographical map, sparse areas offer a counterpoint to areas of density and high energy. Wires loop across fields of geometric shapes, their rhythmic dance implying fluidity.

Small paintings echo the intense forces that lie beneath the surface of things. Landscape With Larva depicts dilapidated homes and yards filled with junk. It captures the same sense of ordered disorder found in his constructions. Although McMillen's whimsy is always intact, at times it takes an ominous turn. The strange, dreamlike quality of Bullseye's Last Voyage is a departure into the realm of the bizarre. He turns a comic symbol into something foreboding by floating a large clown-head on a turbulent sea. A small raft of people is in danger of being devoured by both sea and clown.

McMillen's work provokes a sense of wonder and, like Pablo Neruda's odes to simple things, it distills poetry from ordinary objects.