Los Angeles

Michael C. McMillen

Asherfaure Gallery

Artifice, violence, and nostalgia are the silent residents of Michael McMillen’s precisely rendered environments. His is the world of back alleys near rundown oceanside apartments, the littered hallways of abandoned buildings, and deserted streets at night. Wandering disoriented among his works one appreciates McMillen’s power to convince us of the reality of his precincts through the sheer detail of his observation and the spellbinding precision of his illusionism. Using lenses and mirrors he can make a three-dimensional miniaturized scene appear life-size, then, reversing himself, fill up actual rooms with an avalanche of carefully selected props, transforming them into a run-down garage, the innards of an oceangoing freighter, or another such familiar but improbable environment of his invention. Manufactured illusion is a major industry in Southern California, and McMillen’s technical abilities have been carefully honed by his work in the film industry. Bringing these skills and his dramatic vision to the arena of art he has consistently downplayed the craft and illusionistic aspects of his work and focused upon the emotional range and evocative power of his imagery.

McMillen’s recent exhibition relies little if at all upon his capacity for magic and three-dimensional artifice. He is now exhibiting paintings so beautifully controlled that they recall the painstakingly plotted tensions of Uccello rather than the dusty glamour of Hollywood. The best of these small paintings place one directly into McMillen’s constructed spaces; grids of pale gray and green made of clearly articulated floor tiles plot a taut and tidy space. Pieces of plumbing stick out at suggestive angles. Soft sunlight reveals dusty cracks, subdued but richly modulated color, and a striking clarity of form. As McMillen reveals the erotic tensions lurking beneath the surfaces of everyday places and objects, one is reminded of Giorgio de Chirico’s use of architecture as an evocative presence. At times, the titles verge upon the literal and the obvious—for example, Fear of Fusion, or Twentieth Century Triumph, in which a man falls off a cliff into a field of cactus spines while being watched by a small child. But McMillen’s visual imagery exhibits a subtle yet complex capacity for narrative much broader and more satisfying than any title could suggest.

Most engaging of all are his Italian paintings, combining the personal observations of a contemporary traveler, cloak-and-dagger encounters with mysterious mafiosi, and the romance of the Italian landscape filtered through memories of beloved old-master paintings. McMillen’s new work is more complex, more thoughtful and fragile, less of a spectacle and more richly human.

Susan C. Larsen