ART : He Sold His Heart to the Junkman : Michael McMillan prowls alleyways searching for discards to transform into dreamlike replicas of bygone Americana

Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When Michael McMillan committed himself to a life as an artist in 1964, it was tantamount to Alice falling down the rabbit hole. An inveterate dreamer whose unusual childhood resulted in his developing an intensely visual imagination, McMillan decided, at 18, that he would make his dreams the focal point of his working life, that he would attempt to give his fantasies concrete physical form, and transform the games of childhood into metaphors for the complex problems of adulthood.

In short, he decided to make play his arena for wrestling with the great mysteries of life. Toward that end he began building highly detailed assemblages fashioned out of scavenged materials and artificially aged scraps of wood that were conceived to give a voice to the memories and images from the past that had permanently imprinted themselves on his mind's eye.

He crafted models and astonishingly real installations that resurrected creepy carnival arcades, crumbling Depression era tenements, decrepit trailer parks and pool halls that shivered with loneliness. He created miniature airplanes, ghost ships, trains and toy soldiers freighted with intimations of power and conquest. He invented a coin-operated waterfall, and built a life-size corrugated tin houseboat in memory of his recently deceased father, then plunked it in an artificial lake he created in a gallery.

Employing jarring shifts of scale and residing in a time warp where myriad odds and ends of 20th-Century American life collapse into one another, his art is a spellbound meditation on the boundless riches of the physical world, the powerful undertow of the past, and the ephemeral nature of the present.

"Play is theater of the mind in its purest sense and is a way of getting out of your body and going someplace else," says the 47-year-old artist, whose new work is on view at the L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice through Dec. 24. "We're all born with the capacity to get out of our bodies and into another world through play, but most of us get it beat out of us--and the older you get, the harder it is to get to that space."

Meeting with McMillan at the house in Santa Monica he shares with his wife, designer Tracey Shiffman, one experiences a bit of a shock passing through their impeccably ordered living space and into the back yard. There McMillan gives free rein to his pack-rat impulses, and the yard is best described as a mess; a narrow dirt path winds through shoulder high mounds of rusting junk, old wood and discarded appliances. Like all obsessive pack rats, McMillan could tell you exactly why he retrieved every corroded hunk of tin, where it's stored and what it's for.

"The alleys of L.A. are my favorite art supply store and I have certain alleys I regularly cruise on my bike," enthuses McMillan as he surveys his junk with visible affection. "There's a certain magic to finding stuff. Not to get too mystical about it, but it seems that when I need something it always just appears--and that's been true of my life too."

McMillan clearly finds great solace and inspiration in the cathedral of trash he's erected in his yard, but to the untrained eye it simply looks like the chaotic accumulation of several lifetimes--which it sort of is. McMillan is the third generation of his family to live in this house.

"My parents divorced when I was 2, and I was taken in by my grandparents who raised me here," recalls McMillan during a conversation in a sunlit room decorated with several of McMillan's pieces, folk art and lovingly preserved old toys. "I've lived in this house for 45 years now and I can sense the presence of my ancestors very vividly.

"Both my grandparents were born in the 1880s, so I experienced this funny generational leap that gave me an odd relationship with time," continues McMillan, a boyishly charming man who keeps whatever dark side he may have well tucked away. "I grew up in a house of old furniture--everything I saw as a child was really old, in fact--and being an only child I had lots of time to fantasize and play."

McMillan's grandfather, a soldier in World War I who spent most of his life working for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, was at loggerheads with McMillan's father, who left his childhood home in West Virginia to pursue a life in the theater in New York. It was there he met McMillan's mother, an Italian immigrant who was a commercial artist during the '30s and '40s; all these familial currents--the railroad, soldiering, the theater, and commercial art of the '30s--can clearly be felt in McMillan's art.

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When McMillan was still a child his father came west to hustle the movie industry and moved into the Santa Monica house with his father and son, and at that point McMillan was introduced to what would prove to be a key influence on his art. "Because of my father I spent a lot of time on movie sets when I was growing up, and that was pretty much my first introduction to art," says McMillan, whose work often employs the trompe l'oeil techniques of film to explore issues of artifice and illusion. "I loved movies and the environment where they were made, and saw the movie lot itself as an artwork.

"L.A. in the '50s was completely dominated by the movies--that and the aerospace industry," he continues, referring to another influence on his art. "This street I live on was like 'Life of Riley' land--everybody worked at Douglas Aircraft--and I remember visiting my neighbor and seeing these beautiful model airplanes he built, and going on field trips to Douglas and watching them build these massive planes."

Meanwhile, puttering in a garage down the alley from the McMillan house, was Ken Strickfaden, whom McMillan describes as "an early mentor. Ken designed all the props they used in the film 'Frankenstein' and his garage was full of those Tesla coils and big high voltage insulators. He was essentially using the principles and visuals of science to make folk art, and I remember visiting him in the afternoon and seeing all these things sparking and sputtering. It was Ken who got me into science," says McMillan who began his college career planning to become a chemical engineer, "It took me a while to figure out it was the look of science rather than the number crunching that appealed to me."

The visuals and laws of science play a big role in McMillan's art, which often looks to be the work of a mad inventor and frequently features motorized parts. But science is an area of human activity that often focuses on the future and is at odds with the notion of decay, which is also a dominant note in McMillan's art; the juxtaposition of these two currents is at the heart of his sensibility.

"A huge influence on me was the old Ocean Park Pier in Santa Monica, where they had this run-down arcade that was really scary," says McMillan. "I was also knocked out by Coney Island, which I saw when I was 11--there's a macabre seediness about those environments that's really fascinating. Coney Island had this cheesy wax museum with figures of famous murderers that really affected me. I think children feel vaguely responsible for whatever they encounter in the world, and I remember feeling very guilty for witnessing those wax figures. I don't understand the psychology of this, but it's almost as if being witness to an evil deed makes you part of it somehow.

"My work has always been designed to evoke a macabre aspect of disintegration and decay, and to allude to the perverse, dark side of human nature," he adds. "I've come to realize that this . . . unclean aspect of existence is just part of nature and isn't all bad, because nothing is all one thing. I like the metaphor of that theatrical logo, the masks of tragedy and comedy--that duality is at play in every aspect of life."

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McMillan didn't connect with the themes and ideas that have come to dominate his life until he was well into his first year as a science major at Santa Monica City College; he discovered he was barking up the wrong tree after seeing an exhibition of work by California assemblage artist Gordon Wagner.

"That was the first art show I'd ever seen other than going to the 'Pageant of the Masters' in Laguna Beach, and it was a totally liberating experience--suddenly the world of art opened up to me," he recalls. "It was an epiphany, and was one of those rare times in life when you see a real fork in the road--and I took the right road.

"After changing my major I transferred to Cal State Northridge, where I studied with Walter Gabrielson, who was a great teacher because he didn't try to stick his style on you," he continues. "At that point the style I work in now had already begun to coalesce and though I was making a few paintings then, I was much more drawn to object making."

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Citing Surrealism as an important early influence--"I loved it because it was like a photograph of a dream," he recalls--McMillan was also inspired by so-called outsider art, which he admired for it's honesty. "There's a response to materials that's untainted by academic thinking with outsider art, and I really like that," he says.

Two other influences readily apparent in McMillan's mature style are the masters of American assemblage, Joseph Cornell and H.C. Westermann. Like Cornell, McMillan uses flotsam and jetsam rescued from the junk heap of life to evoke a hermetic world of melancholy and whispered secrets; Westermann's ghost can be felt in the brash, skewed humor and dazzling craft characteristic of McMillan's work.

McMillan became aware of the work of both those artists in the early '70s when he was attending UCLA where he studied with Abstract Expressionist painter Richard Diebenkorn. "I don't make Abstract Expressionist paintings because that's not the right vehicle for me to express what I need to say, but I think Diebenkorn did influence my work," says McMillan, who favors a muted palette and approach to composition that's very much in sync with Diebenkorn. "If you look at my work in terms of shape and color you can see these objects are really about painting and sculptural problems."

By the time McMillan graduated from UCLA with an M.F.A. in 1973 he was highly skilled as a model maker and found himself in demand in the special effects departments of the movie studios. Helping create the optical effects for such films as "Blade Runner" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he worked for the movies on and off for 14 years as a means of financing his activities as a fine artist.

"When I first started making models for movies I really struggled with the question of what makes one model an artwork while another is just a prop," he recalls. "I finally decided that the object is neutral and has no nature of its own, and that it's the artist's intent that defines it. This is one of the great lessons Duchamp taught us when he declared a urinal an artwork. What makes a bowl of fruit an artwork? Somebody has the force of personality to make it so."

Though McMillan avoids putting human figures in his pieces "because then they really scream 'doll house,' " the miniature model format works for him as a vehicle for creating fine art for several reasons. "I love small things and find something really magical about scale changes," he explains. "I'm also attracted to miniatures because it's a way of condensing architecture, which is something I really love."

McMillan's interest in architecture has led him to create dozens of sculptural works that transform the fundamental elements of mid-20th-Century American buildings--windows, doors, facades and hallways--into metaphysical metaphors.

"Architectural metaphors are always there in my work," he points out. "I suppose I see stairs as a metaphor for life itself in that one hopes there's some kind of ascension as one ages, and windows and doors signify the beyond and suggest a glimpse of another world. Hallways and corridors are about choice. You can't know where the hallway you've chosen will take you until you get there, so they're also about risk and mystery."

Talking about architecture reminds McMillan of a project he's always dreamed of doing, which he proceeds to explain. "I've always wanted to transform an abandoned hotel in a downtown area into a labyrinth of installations. I envision a hotel of maybe 100 rooms--every room would have a different installation, and at the end of the journey the viewer would be transformed as a person."

And exactly what is the transformation he hopes would take place? He pauses for a moment and gazes out the window for a minute before replying. "A more acute awareness of the richness of this visual life we're in," he concludes.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday December 5, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 11 words Type of Material: Correction In a profile last Sunday of Michael McMillen, the artist's name was misspelled.
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