Critics’ Picks

Emma McMillan, The Teacher or Hyatt Regency, 2019, oil on aquarelle, 48 x 71 x 1.5".

Emma McMillan, The Teacher or Hyatt Regency, 2019, oil on aquarelle, 48 x 71 x 1.5".


Emma McMillan

Atlanta Contemporary
535 Means Street NW
August 24–December 22, 2019

Designed largely by the late architect John Portman, the Peachtree Center in Atlanta offers an Olympian view from its network of pedestrian skybridges, allowing passersby to peer detachedly over the street below as they scuttle between interconnected office towers and convention hotels. Portman’s buildings, begun in the sixties and originally cited as a sign of so-called urban renewal, have since been criticized for sidestepping the city, their signature features—soaring atria, interior balconies, and vertiginous, glass-lined elevators—favoring air-conditioned spectacle over the comparatively messy public sphere.

In a suite of new paintings, Emma McMillan calls into question the visual maneuvers that Portman’s structures rely on. The Teacher or Hyatt Regency (all works 2019), with its overlapping rectangles of translucent, purplish-whites, parodies the blocky neofuturism of its real-life Peachtree counterpart; the streaky white orbs and red-to-pink gradient of Marriott, A Man in Full caricatures the bulging contours and dizzying verticality of Portman’s Marriott Marquis Hotel. At the same time she adopts Portman’s forced perspective, however, McMillan undermines it by marking her paintings with kaleidoscopic fractals or a flat, red “X” squarely in the foreground, analog refutations of Portman’s techno-utopian hyperspaces.

McMillan has arranged her installation into a compact but persuasive demonstration of how painting can insist on its built environment. The four oil-on-aquarelle works, all nearly six feet tall and displayed on floor-to-ceiling scaffolding, are clustered near the gallery’s entrance; on the far side, four worn leather chairs from the John Portman Archives are zip-tied together in an identical arrangement, shaped in that same letter X (The Family). It’s impossible to view more than two paintings at a time. Forced to circle them, one notices that each canvas is lined with dozens of small, reflective shards; directly between the paintings is a space much like a Portman atrium, revealed here to be a hall of mirrors.