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Opening November 21, 2003 - March 21, 2004 at L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice

by Elenore Welles

Picture an abandoned old motel, dilapidated and littered with castoff detritus. If you visualized it on a lonely stretch of road somewhere out West, Michael C. McMillen’s gallery installation Red Trailer Motel will transport you there.

McMillen is an enduring Southern California artist best known for his intriguing constructions. Since the 1970s he has been creating installations with architectural references that deal with themes of time, change and illusion. The rough-hewn elegance of his fabrications are rooted in the assemblage tradition and the enduring messages of discarded objects. They invoke, also, elements of Dada and Surrealism. Romantic and spiritual impulses complete this aesthetic spectrum.

His latest installation continues along the same trajectory. The motel facade is built from corrugated metal and tar paper found by the artist buried beneath cow dung. Subjected to the ravages of weather and age, an authentic patina of the past seeps through.

The structure sits on a gravel base surrounded by walls painted dark blue. Illumination evokes an eerie night glow. Three locked doors in shades of blue, pink and cream contain peep holes. The viewer is lured to investigate; forced into voyeurism in anticipation, perhaps, of forbidden scenes. But McMillen subverts any unseemly expectations with evocative, dreamlike tableaux.

Mysterious and unexpected, the tableaux spaces confound allegorical stereotypes. They reveal, for example, a surreal underwater space, a dreamlike landscape setting and a decrepit pool room interior. Animated with movement, sound and illumination, they are strange conceptual spaces that defy literal interpretations. Rather, the synesthesian interplay of sensations and texture transports you into the realm of the senses. McMillen sees that realm as a place of heightened perceptions, possibly leading to dream states.

McMillen often challenges purely aesthetic impulses with levels of understanding about time and change, subjects basic to the context of the work Time Below. Here McMillen shifts the perspective to a downward view of Red Trailer Motel in miniature, surrounded by buildings, trees and a railroad track. The title refers to both place and aerial perspective. Three dimensional objects, set against a vertical wall, give the illusion of defing gravity. Both wall and landscape are painted red, resulting in an ambience that is stark and otherworldly.

A light source slides across the wall, producing moving shadows that convey a sense of time passing. The monochromatic landscape suggests a view from a plane seen through atmospheric changes in light.

A sound composition created specifically for the work adds a meditative quality. Not as directly confrontational as the motel, this structure still taps into psychological and emotional states.

“Red Trailer Motel,” 2003, mixed media installation., dimensions vary.

“Time Below,” 2003, mixed media installation., dimensions vary.

“Red Trailer Motel,” 2003, mixed media installation., dimensions vary.

“Red Trailer Motel,” 2003, mixed media installation., dimensions vary.

These works are meant to jostle recesses of the brain that spark imagination. They are evocative of stage sets geared for psychodrama, in which audience response becomes part of the narrative. Edward Kienholtz comes to mind, and indeed, McMillen concedes that Kientoltz is his hero. But McMillen differs from Kienholtz in that he softens the experience with escapist allusions. At the same time, his edgy tableaux manage to retain an aura of familiarity, a haunting sense of having been there.