From the Movies to the Museum, Michael McMillen Fabricates Artistic Tableaus

BY Spencer Michels  May 18, 2011 at 3:12 PM EST

Click images for a larger view, and watch Spencer Michels’ report on Wednesday’s NewsHour.

I would like to see Michael McMillen’s backyard.

Or maybe not.

The Los Angeles artist uses just about anything he can find or that he’s collected over the years to shape his art work — work that ranges from small objects like a moth pulling a brick to giant installations that viewers can walk into and feel part of. There’s a whole sleazy motel, complete with signs and mysterious rooms in his current exhibit. You can look into the motel rooms through peepholes and find amazing, perhaps disturbing things. He likens it a bit to the Bates Motel in “Psycho.” Still, it’s amusing.

At 65, McMillen is having his first retrospective, “Train of Thought” at the Oakland Museum of California, and it’s an intriguing, engaging show, scattered throughout the museum’s galleries, rather than all in one wing. He’s been making pieces since he switched from engineering to art in college many years ago, and then launched a movie career. In fact, he made models for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Blade Runner,” among others.

But he’s mostly left the movies behind, except for some old film clips he resurrects, and now constructs intricate works that seem too big, too complicated for most museums — though obviously they are not. His work has appeared in major institutions throughout the country.

A recent piece called “Lighthouse” is model of a cheap, decaying hotel perched on stilts in a pool of water. The closer you look at it, the more you see. And that’s true with most of his works; there’s hidden clues and designs not apparent at first.

In “Pavilion of Rain,” McMillen has constructed a grungy fishing shack in the middle of a lake (built in a museum room, using waterproof plastic designed to line farm ponds). Viewers can walk into the shack during a rainstorm, which creates sounds McMillen says are calming — at least to him.

“I draw from my own memory and imagination,” he told me as we prepared a story on his retrospective for the PBS NewsHour. “But I try to incorporate elements out of our common language, the built-in environment that we live in.”

Much of his work appears to glory in its own decline; it’s decaying and greasy and yet appealing.

“It’s like the universe,” he says. “It’s always changing, always in flux. Nothing’s always new and perfect forever.”

So he scrounges the landscape and his own backyard for rusty chains and old signs and outdated fire extinguishers and a thousand familiar objects to blend and craft into a new work of art. Basically, it’s a kick.

McMillen’s show — 69 pieces from the early ’70s to the present — runs through Aug. 14 at the Oakland Museum of California.