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Art review: Michael McMillen at L.A. Louver

September 17, 2010 |  7:00 am

300.Furnace Cove A landscape painter might widen a path at the foreground of a composition to usher the viewer’s eye into the depicted scene. Michael C. McMillen quite literally provides a door at the entrance to most of his installations — including his intriguing new one at L.A. Louver. Pushing that door open signals our consent to his richly textured propositions. When we step in, we succumb to altered space, ambiguous time. There is much that we recognize, much that seems familiar, but it has been transformed through shifts in scale, material, context. Transformation gradually overcomes us, too, the natural result of exposure to the new — but also in the reframing of the old. McMillen tampers expertly with our collective memory bank, staging indelible encounters through touch, sound and sight.

There are actually two overt thresholds in the current show, which comes seven years after he invited viewers here through a creaky screen door to the stunning “Red Trailer Motel.” At the show’s entrance, a pair of doors set within a patchwork of corrugated metal connects by cable and pulley to a small anchor and a motley assortment of old keys. The weights lift when the door is opened, and clunk down into metal buckets when the doors close, marking our arrival.


Inside that first gallery is a spare collection of relics in wood and cast bronze, miniature versions of structures and modes of transport: a bridge that ends abruptly, mid-span; a brick cistern with a dark, bottomless hole; a group of foot-long rowboats holding barrels and trunks sculpted to scale as well as actual padlocks and keys that appear radically oversized; a wall-mounted submarine; and a paddle-wheel boat, suspended overhead. All are meticulously modeled but in some way compromised, damaged, incomplete or merely worn, their designated functions relegated another step deeper into the symbolic.

300.Lighthouse (Hotel New Empire) A second doorway leads to “Lighthouse,” installed in a dimly-lit, gray-walled room. In the center, on rusted stilts, stands the “Hotel New Empire,” a sallow gold structure advertising low rates by the day, week or month. The building, its facade embellished by columns and ornamental lion heads, reeks of faded glory, of empire in decline. It tilts, tenuously, over a shallow enclosure of water (calling to mind a certain failed offshore oil rig), an emblem of aspiration defeated by natural forces, but even more likely brought down by hubris.

Atop the hotel structure rises a billboard that screens a continuous loop of “The Quotidian Man,” a new short film by McMillen. Like his sculptural work, the film mixes found and fabricated materials, in this case old news and documentary footage, scenes (in both black and white and color) of beachgoers, war planes, piers, Barbie dolls and more, set to a score alternately suspenseful and jaunty. McMillen strikes a pseudo-instructional tone with intertitles announcing the year, and arrows pointing to elements within a scene, but there’s no single lesson being taught here. Within the montage of fragments, McMillen cracks some shrewd jokes (overlaying a promotional sales pitch — “Only 50 cents” — atop a military talking head, for instance) but mainly pushes our buttons, the same ones deftly manipulated by the news media and Hollywood to trigger feelings of fear, nostalgia, anxiety, hope.

McMillen’s work hinges on illusion and its flip side, disillusion. He is always looking back at the ways we’ve looked ahead, at the promises we’ve sold ourselves and the passages we’ve embarked upon. He is a jump-cut storyteller of brooding honesty and astonishing technique.

-- Leah Ollman

L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-4955, through Oct. 30. Closed Sunday and Monday.

Images: Furnace Cove (top) and Lighthouse (Hotel New Empire). Courtesy L.A. Louver.