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Editorial: Reviews
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Michael McMillen
at Oakland Museum of Callifornia, Oakland, California
Review by Dewitt Cheng

Michael McMillen, 'Train of Thought,' 1990, mixed media

Continuing through August 14, 2011

The shock of the new in art tends to come at the price of general incomprehension and hostility, at least sometimes when it comes to the responses of non-professional art civilians. Not so with the work of Michael C. McMillen, whose four-decade retrospective, “Train of Thought,” curated by the Oakland Museum’s Phil Linhares, proves that artists can still win hearts and minds even in today’s device-saturated era. McMillen’s peculiar sculptures and installations, miracles of painstaking craftsmanship and sly wit, emanate from character, not career strategy. The authenticity and intensity of his funny, funky dreamed-up vision is irresistible. The train ride through his imagination’s roadside attractions and movie-set back lots is thoughtful, engaging and sometimes hilarious.

The Hollywood allusion is apt in McMillen’s case. Growing up in Los Angeles during the 1950s and 60s, a raised by a father who worked in television set design, this artist was surrounded by stagecraft, and enchanted by Captain Midnight, Superman and Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Befriended by a neighbor who had worked as a “theatrical magician” on the Frankenstein movies, McMillen later worked, after completing art school, in the Dream Factory too, on “Blade Runner,” “1941” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The expertise that he acquired there in scale models, faux finishes, and other optical trickery would serve his own miniature buildings and human-scaled stage sets, with their peepholes into seedy, dilapidated interiors. In the late 1960s, he wrote, “I was fascinated by the facade quality of the set; it has an esthetic quality all of its own. It’s what people are willing to accept as reality that fascinates me.”
McMillen’s explorations of fictive reality take form in drawings, paintings, sculptures, installation and films. Nearly seventy pieces are included in the show, which boasts an insightful catalogue with essays by Linhares and others. The museum has installed the work dispersed throughout the permanent collection (rather than sequestered in lonely glory in a dedicated gallery), which dissipates the cumulative impact somewhat. McMillen’s works hold their own, however, and far from being diminished, benefit from their conversations with nearby art and artifacts. There are plenty of highlights. “The Box of All Knowledge,” a sealed footlocker of undisclosed “contents,” pays homage to Duchamp and other puckish conceptualists. “Picasso’s Last Words” is an empty wine bottle that alludes to Duchamp’s vial of 50cc of Paris air, a gift for a collector who had everything already; McMillen’s version presumably preserves Mougins air infused with 21 grams of soul (the exact size of Picasso’s soul a matter best left to art theologians). “Train of Thought” is a railroad trestle emerging from a wall-mounted tunnel that stops midair, dropping an occasional pasta alphabet letter down onto a semiological pile below, perhaps made with Magritte’s puffiing locomotive emerging from a fireplace in “Time Transfixed,” the megalithic dolmens spelling rêve (dream) with “The Art of Conversation” in mind. The lesser-known painting titled “Heraclitus’s Bridge,” features a masonry bridge, or rather a cantilevered half bridge that dissolves into clouds midway across the river, its watery reflection, dappled by ripples, still complete, as if time-delayed.
The wall-hung, clock-driven Rube Goldberg pinball apparatus of “Deliverance” delivers a bean through a metal tube onto a heaping dinner plate at precise intervals, signaled by a caution light. “Museum of Wax, Strings and Springs,” an array of unprepossessing household junk accorded the status of art, is an ironic comment on art aesthetics and esthetes. “The Raft of History” is a fragment of a hybrid structure, half sailing man-of-war and half Victorian house, with gingerbread ornamentation pierced by cannon-bearing portals. An evocative walk-in stage set of derelict buildings, ”Red Trailer Motel” comes replete with summer-night sound effects and vistas into seedy interiors. “Aristotle’s Cage” is a miniature tableau of desert trailer life beneath a red sky through which soars an apocalyptically skeletal pale horse and rider — a perfect domicile for refugees from Plato’s cave or, alternatively, a reference to hosts of McMillenials fleeing Oakland’s end times.

Oakland Museum of California

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