Thursday, January 14, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Elsewhere" (on the Outpost show at LA Louver by Michael C. McMillen)


by Douglas Messerli 

Michael C. McMillen Outpost / Venice (Los Angeles), LA Louver, January 13, 2016
Over the past several decades, Los Angeles artist Michael C. McMillen has been showing larger installations and smaller combines that often portray mysterious architectural landscapes and objects conjured up by his lively imagination.

      His work has been shown in group shows and major one-man shows and retrospectives in 1977 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; in 1978 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; in 1980 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia; and, most recently at the Oakland Museum of California in both 1990 and 2011 and the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art in 2015. Each of these have combine his larger scale “rooms,” “pavilions,” and even “motels” along with the more miniature constructions.

     McMillen was also largely responsible for the fantastical set of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, and for years I took all out-of-town visitors to his large-scale The Central Meridian at LACMA, which most museum visitors simply called “The Garage.”
     In all of these works, as well as in the new show at Venice’s LA Louver gallery, McMillen presents highly detailed collages of metal, wood, and various everyday objects that together create model buildings, boats, planes, and more abstract objects that, in his theatrical presentation of them, become what might be described as American dream landscapes that evoke a vision of a lost or quickly decaying world.

     One might almost be led to describe McMillen’s method as a kind of cannibalization of the banal, woven, through his fantastical wonderment, into worlds just beyond the rational, particularly given that the most striking of these works in the current show is a large ship, The Pequod II, hanging from the ceiling, its masts puffing from the movement of gallery visitors and an out-of-sight fan, as if we were witnessing it from the bottom of the sea looking up through the ocean waters.

     The Pequod, of course, is a reference to the small whaling vessel destroyed by the whale Moby Dick in the great Herman Melville novel, wherein the central character had a deep friendship with his own cannibal, Queequeg. 
    In fact, when this work was first shown in 1987, so McMillen told me, it was paired with a giant whale fashioned by artist Red Grooms. What was a small vessel in Melville’s work, however, is here rendered as a kind of giant behemoth itself—appearing almost as if constructed of rusted iron rather than wood—with its dozen of portholes and a mainmast observation deck that looks a bit like ramshackle village topped with a metal water strainer. The monster is ballasted on both sides by huge pieces of surf boards, while on the very end of an overhanging lower level, a small figure stands, appearing almost to be bowling or, perhaps, just tossing something into the sea. However we might “read” this work, we recognize it as a powerful statement of life and death, suggesting as it does a kind of “ghost” ship, with only its one “bowling” human being left.
     Similarly, the spinning shadowed structure we witness in his Transmitter (2014) appears like a ghostly oil derrick floating across the waves, its transmitting tower beaming out information of its near cyclonic voyage.

     At the other end of the Transmitter, one might quip, is McMillen’s Receiver, a mixed-media construction that appears almost as some terrible scientific mechanism, or even a sort of “electric” chair upon which the viewer sits to witness the images it projects. But unlike the rather frightening mix of electronic “receivers” and plugged-in chords, the image it projects is a soothing portrayal of the ocean itself with its rising and lowering tides.
      McMillen’s most recent work in this show, Outpost (2015), demonstrates his more comical side. For in this work the artist has taken an antique chair onto which he has collaged another of his ramshackle buildings, as if the workers who might inhabit this dangerously fragile construction were truly frozen in a space where at any moment a large human giant might squash everything if he chose to use the object for its real purpose.

      Dr. Crump’s Mobile Field Lab from 2004-2014, consists of a small mobile trailer which the mysterious doctor has inexplicably left behind, its insides filled with an impossible tangle of pipes, chords, and other scientific tools presenting clues of what the doctor might have been experimenting on. Four short films, “Politbureau,” “Science Institute Presents,” “Wastelandia,” and “The End” give us further clues, while suggesting some possibly horrifying conclusions that Dr. Crump might have come to. This work, like much of McMillen’s art, is both comic and terrifying at the very same moment. 
      While the other four works in this show are whimsical and charming, they cannot match the eerie quietude and sense of displacement created by the works I describe above. But even they, as one of the works proclaims in stenciled sign painter’s enamel on wood, represent worlds that are “elsewhere,” somewhere outside of our own space and time, suggesting a forgotten past or unimagined future that makes us wonder how our activities and constructions in the present might be seen by others.

Los Angeles, January 14, 2016