New York

Michael Mcmillen and Alan Herman

Whitney Museum and O.K. Harris Gallery

Working with props and realistic settings poses several immediate problems for a sculptor. It’s a question of manipulation, really, whether or not the artist can subvert the entire set of inherent connotations to his own purpose. The purpose may vary somewhat—to exploit the meaning of a prop; to transcend connotation and/or pervert the universal reaction; to replace the connotation using the object offhandedly, ignoring previous meanings.

Perhaps as a result of photo-realism, the duplication of objects and our environment has become an accepted form of expression; we abound in self-documentation. Modern narcissists, we seem to enjoy the thrill of recognition without demanding the edge of satire and compassion that marked the work of painters of previous generations. Rather, an objective eye for detail, a careful observation of the objects and elements that make up the stuff of our lives, faithfully reproduces our reality in canvas after canvas.

When this type of detailed observation becomes the material for sculpture the decisions to be made alter subtly. Scale and dimension affect the end product as much as the level of distortion and destruction of the objects used. Both Alan Herman and Michael McMillen display a strong fascination with reality, though one works life-size, the other miniaturizes. But essentially each leaves the individual elements of his pieces in the same state as they’re naturally found.

In Herman’s case, this natural state involves situations of familiar urban interiors. A selection of rooms or partial rooms fill the gallery: a Chinese laundry, industrial-loft hallway, bathroom, roadside cafe, parlor wall, a fragment of a corner. The pieces are faithful reproductions of the genre they represent and exhibit Herman’s special skill in choosing the most appropriate object to complete each setting.

These room-sites offer an in-situ cataloguing of the typical urban citizen. The most striking thing about each room and its props is how familiar and non-surprising it is. Exactly what you’d expect from each set is exactly what is there—comfy slippers and open magazine by the parlor table, can of cleanser and taped-up note in the public bathroom, leftover holiday greetings strung from the ceiling of the roadhouse, made-in-Hong Kong pin-up calendar in the laundry—the list could go on and on. Each setting is replete with the carefully observed detail that authenticates the piece as an echo of our expectations and experience.

Let’s not examine the list of artists working with reconstructed environments, realistic settings or groupings of dummies in real-life poses—there are obvious similarities between their executions, if not their exact styles. The point of interest is the fact that so much of this work continues to flood exhibition spaces. In the Mouse Museum now at the Whitney, Claes Oldenburg goes the list of artists one step better. Eliminating much of the artist’s interference, Oldenburg has assembled scores of objects, displaying them in brightly lit glass cases. The objects form an inventory for a demented toy store—the same type of bizarre items that he used to blow up for soft inflatables, now preserved in their natural state. Rubber ears, plastic hot dogs, a banana harmonica; scores of mutant phalluses dominate the selection. Then there are the plastic foods, toy animals, and many unexplainable items that just seem to fit the collection by virtue of their strangeness. Oldenburg’s relics emphasize the bizarre much more than Herman’s relatively conservative relics do. Oldenburg distances his objects by their unexpected context; Herman familiarizes his by totally expected ones. But the impulse that lies beneath both is the obsessive gathering of the familiar object to scrutinize it under closer examination. Oldenburg’s viewers leave the museum (shaped like a Mickey Mouse head, by the way) in a state of bewildered comprehension. Whatever the objects used, he has startled us in some way by their display. The reaction to Herman’s sculptures is benign, satisfaction that everything is in its right place. What’s missing is the challenge of the situation, an implied “what’s wrong with this picture” that the viewer is forced to seek out. Each section of Herman’s duplicated world is right, correct, fitting—a reassurance that things are actually as they seem.

Similarly, the urban decay of Michael McMillen’s Inner City is familiar, relatively harmless, and almost comforting in its familiarity. Though built on a miniature scale, the model of five buildings is large enough to fill a room. The viewer walks around the set, buildings reach ing shoulder height. Alleyways and backyards wind through the center of the city block and are fully visible, inviting a degree of viewer participation not possible in Herman’s frontal pieces.

Inner City specializes in similar small nuances of detail that complete our recognition of the scene. Tattered window shades drawn across darkened windows, faint light penetrating from within; faded billboards perched atop roofs; boarded-up massage parlors and peep shows; the murky disarray of a ground-floor pool hall. McMillen’s city is plunged in darkness; light sources in the room emanate from behind tiny, true-to-life windows and neon signs. In this regard McMillen merges realities, intent on creating a duplicate experience of an urban area as well as a visual replica.

Carefully introducing us to the scale and darkness, he first leads us through a dark hallway with a tiny diorama in the wall. Inside the peephole, an urban hallway appears—broom resting on garbage can, as if we’d interrupted the night janitor. Behind the garbage can is an incongruous TV screen, playing images upside down. This is McMillen’s only departure from reality and it is powerfully evocative, disconcerting in the way that Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum is. It is “tampered with” reality, and upsetting in much the same way that the large-scale model of a city block is actually reassuring. The experience of urban blight on a dark, seedy street at night is far from pleasant—the experience of McMillen’s model brings the relief of recognition presented in a totally harmless situation. His depiction is accurate, his detail is perfect, our pleasure is one of instant recognition.

McMillen also uses sound as an extra detail. Radios blare behind closed doors, strange knocks and hammerings issue from blurred forms, traffic sounds fade in and out. Sound, dim light, reduced scale do create an environment, but the immediacy of the experience is questionable. McMillen describes the piece as an occasion to explore “the position/concept of art as experience.” His insistence on faithful reproduction of a familiar scene fails to emphasize the experience, however, by actually failing to jolt our senses by any out-of-the-ordinary response. What we gain is the opportunity to scrutinize a familiar, usually threatening scene in absolute safety. What we lose is the essence of the experience—the disorientation that distorts perception. Both McMillen and Herman succeed in the formal aspects of their work—Herman’s meticulously arranged color, McMillen’s compositions of light and dark, sound and silence. Yet both withdraw at the crucial moment with the detachment of the documentarian; they give us more of our own reality, when they could instead give us more of their own point of view.

Deborah Perlberg