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ART REVIEW : Intimate Works by McMillen, Berlant

TIMES ART CRITIC

Michael McMillen and Tony Berlant are gifted veteran L.A. artists investigating different parts of a territory called intimacy. They are presently bracketed in separate solo shows at Venice’s L.A. Louver Gallery.

McMillen often fashions life-size spaces in the form of a cluttered attic or a pack-rat’s garage. They dwell on the solace of solitude under siege. The lurking enemy is an alliance of a haunted memory within and a senseless society without. The signature piece of this exhibition is called “Deliverance.”

A rickety card table is set for a frugal repast. On the wall hangs a Rube Goldberg contraption replete with very ingenious and perfectly pointless funnels, chutes and gears. Every few seconds, after a lot of tedious and unnecessary machination, the thing disgorges a single bean. It rolls down a long narrow black pipe closely resembling a rifle barrel and hits the plate. More often than not it bounces off and comes to rest on the floor. You can practically see Charlie Chaplin waiting for the plate to fill up while he starves to death.

Like Chaplin, McMillen traffics in slapstick tragedy. Nobody has to explain that Chaplin is us, the nice little guy waiting for a bean-counter world to reward his patience and effort, which it will never do.

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The other 28 McMillen works pursue this theme of the futility of it all. The only way to do this is with a certain exasperated humor. He does it in a painting of Mickey Mouse’s head as the blue-plate special called “Dios de Jour” and in a tricycle wheel dubbed “Ceci n’est pas l’art.” The artist clearly has reservations about Pop culture and Duchampian irony but some of their wacky spirit informs his work.

Most of it consists of miniature reliefs of derelict architectural facades. McMillen has made his living fashioning special effects models for the movies. He grafts its patient, almost compulsive craftsmanship to the found-object spontaneity of Assemblage, creating an aura of thoughtful eccentricity.

“Psycho-Tower” has been carefully crafted so nothing really leads anywhere. Ladders start too late or end too soon. If all our rational guile comes to nothing, what’s to do? “In God We Trust” the artist replies in the title of a work that mounts an electric chair on a pedestal of Coke cans.

McMillen’s work evokes a long list of other artists from Hieronymus Bosch to H. C Westermann, from Llyn Foulkes to Terry Allen. When one artist brings so many others to mind without resembling them it is a sure signal of originality.

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Tony Berlant has lately proven himself capable of expressing the ominous atmosphere of today’s culture. In this show, however, he’s at his most witty, affectionate and casually enchanting. Called “Small Works,” the ensemble includes over 70 pieces averaging about 2 inches by 2 inches. They are micro-mini versions of his usual works, with backgrounds of colorfully enameled metal nailed together and festooned with precious-junk figures, glass flowers and objects evidently salvaged from costume jewelry, Cracker Jack boxes and gumball machines.

Tough times not uncommonly cause artists to make large numbers of small objects for economic reasons. They also embody the lyric introversion that makes a soured reality bearable. Such works have their own reward. Small art reads all at once without optical scanning so it has a nice kick. Large numbers challenge an artist’s inventiveness and Berlant has come up with a bogglingly impressive variety of images.

He’s always playful and sometimes a bit naughty. In “She’s Afraid of Herself” a blonde girl runs from a snake hanging from a telephone pole. He’s concerned about the roll of life’s dice in “Double Luck” where a wishbone is backed up with a four-leafed clover. He’s irreverent in “Icon” with its cat-headed Jesus, and waxes exotic in “Asian Fantasy.”

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This show should cure anybody still laboring under the illusion that small equals insignificant. This kind of ease only grows out of a mastery that can chuckle and say, “Hey, if it’s too small for the wall you can wear it as a brooch.”

* L.A. Louver Gallery, (310) 822-4955, McMillen at 77 Market St. through Dec. 24, Berlant at 55 N. Venice Blvd. through Dec. 24. Closed Sundays and Mondays.


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