Los Angeles Artist Finds Inspiration in Everyday Places, Things

May 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Michael McMillen finds inspiration for his work in an intriguing collection of everyday places and things. Spencer Michels has a look back at the unusual 40-year career of this Los Angeles artist.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a look back at the unusual 40-year career of a Los Angeles artist.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has the story.

SPENCER MICHELS: Inspiration is where you find it, even in the parking lot of an abandoned industrial site.

In the California desert, the detritus of civilization litters the landscape, inspiring this assemblage called “Aristotle’s Cage,” one of 69 works in a new show by Los Angeles artist Michael McMillen. He has found inspiration in an intriguing collection of everyday things and places, even in seedy motels that reek of decay and intrigue, intrigue he has enhanced with tricks and trivia.

“Red Trailer Motel” is perhaps the showpiece of the first-ever retrospective of McMillen’s art, now at the Oakland Museum of California, a museum specializing in the history and art of the Golden State.

McMillen, now 65, got training as an engineer before switching to art, and he’s used his mechanical skills to shape his installations. He uses material and memories accumulated over the years.

MICHAEL MCMILLEN, artist: We’re outside the “Red Trailer Motel” in you name it, wherever. It’s basically an installation that hopefully takes the viewer, the museum visitor out of where they think they are, and puts them into another realm in time and place.

SPENCER MICHELS: I see a sign, “See the UFO Landing Site.”


SPENCER MICHELS: That’s pretty funny.


SPENCER MICHELS: But, in a way, the motel is pretty tragic. I mean, this is — this is not a place you would want to stay.

MICHAEL MCMILLEN: No, you probably wouldn’t want to if you didn’t have to. It has tinges of maybe the Bates Motel.


MICHAEL MCMILLEN: It was — I wanted to create something that would really, like you said, address the dark side and the humorous side simultaneously.

SPENCER MICHELS: McMillen fits into a new school of artists, says Phil Linhares, the chief curator at the museum.

PHILIP LINHARES, Oakland Museum of California: Nowadays, artists are creating installations, things that are experiential, things that people can walk through and experience. And McMillen is one of the people who’s really pushing that particular idea.

SPENCER MICHELS: This is one of McMillen’s newest works. It’s called “Lighthouse.” There is nothing pretentious about what he does. But that’s not to say that it is unsophisticated or simple.

While “Lighthouse” has a slightly sinister, mysterious look, McMillen wants it to be familiar enough to draw in visitors, who can search for clues even in the sounds to give it meaning and context.

A child of Hollywood, McMillen is steeped in the movies and they permeate much of his work.

MICHAEL MCMILLEN: When I got out of art school, I found employment working building sets and doing miniatures for films, and that was a great kind of postgraduate education.

SPENCER MICHELS: The McMillen exhibit is not confined to one room or even several, like most one-man shows. Rather, it’s scattered throughout the Oakland Museum’s collection.

PHIL LINHARES: I mean, sometimes, when I sit in the “Pavilion of Rain,” I imagine I’m in Port Arthur, Texas, in a rainstorm.

MICHAEL MCMILLEN: I built that in 1987, a year after my father had passed away. And I did it as a homage to him.

SPENCER MICHELS: “Pavilion of Rain” is an old shack on a lake, found objects stuck together, sitting in a pool of water that collects and amplifies the rain that falls from the ceiling, an inner sanctum.

MICHAEL MCMILLEN: Once you’re in that piece, it has an amazing calming effect, at least on me.

SPENCER MICHELS: McMillen often uses water.

MICHAEL MCMILLEN: I was walking with my dog through an alley, and I found this — this single, old gymnasium locker.

SPENCER MICHELS: And he added a small water pump you can’t see.

MICHAEL MCMILLEN: The sound of water running implies time, change. You see a lot of water symbols in my work, which, again, like the wheel, is a kind of — I thought about process, endless process of water and time, erosion, change.

SPENCER MICHELS: Michael McMillen says he expects those who see his installations to work a bit to interpret what they find. And they will find plenty of mysteries. His retrospective, including some films he made, runs at the Oakland Museum in Oakland, California, through Aug. 14.