Newport Beach

Robert Millar

Newport Harbor Art Museum

Robert Millar’s environments seem a hybrid of “California Light and Space” and “finish fetish” esthetics, filtered through the antithetical post-Minimalist predilections for material integrity and situationist ephemerality. This view is partly a result of his obvious interest in the mutual contingencies of light, form, and space as perceptual signifiers. Closer acquaintance reveals a strategy more aligned with what disciples of Gilles Deleuze would call “multiplicity and proliferation.” In this case, specificities—this material object in this space—do not remain constant but are perpetually transformed beyond the immediate parameters of form and site through the inevitability of sensory and conceptual duration. Each work triggers associations with other works/materials/sites so that it modifies, and is in turn transformed by, an ever-changing whole.

Here Millar employed a variety of materials—wood, aluminum, limestone, photographs, and gold leaf—in three separate locations. Five objects were placed in the gallery space itself. Two photo diptychs, Spike Miss I and Was It a Refrigerated Cake?, both 1990, featured vaporous, cloudlike forms that also suggested milky, underwater filaments. By mounting these representations of light on aluminum, Millar juxtaposed the ephemerality with their actual hard-edged materiality. When contrasted with Craig Torstenbo Is a Queer, 1990, however, in which an identical pair of sandblasted aluminum blocks were butted together, we started to read this usually durable material as a softer, more porous substance, vulnerable to every mark or fingerprint.

This initial rereading was further complicated when translated through the adjacent There Were Women Named Tiffany and Bambi There, 1990. A vertical diptych of gold leaf on black anodized aluminum, this piece consisted of two narrow “planks,” each resembling an asymmetrical double wedge. As one changed position in front of the piece, the surface reflection of the lighting would also shift, breaking up the gold leaf surface in much the same way that the photographic representation of Spike Miss I or the sandblasting of Craig Torstenbo “softened” their aluminum grounds. Thus, through lighting, positioning, and formal association, Millar was able to stress the material and procedural continuities and discontinuities between works in disparate mediums.

Millar extended this initial multiplicity of readings into exterior space through an accompanying series of outdoor site-specific installations. Drilling for Megma, 1990–91, a raised platformlike construction placed in one corner of the museum’s sculpture garden, enabled the viewer to take in the landscape beyond the surrounding wall. Here, we were taken beyond the immediate hermeticism of the gallery and its objects and forced to conceptualize the work as part of the larger world. This utilitarian, productivist direction was reinforced by IEYK510, 1990–91, in which Millar set up a wooden chess table and seats in four separate Newport Beach locations: City Hall Plaza, West Jetty View Park, Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, and an undisclosed location on undeveloped private land. While the specified locations encouraged one to see art as part of a mobile, transitory viewing experience (the work’s title evokes a license plate, for example), the refusal to pinpoint the fourth site also created a desire to multiply the work’s initial meanings—its suggestion of games, leisure, and the relationship of recreation to other types of land use (commercial development)—beyond those specific to the art world, to include not only gallery work but all types of labor and production. In this way, the flux of a broader totality constantly folds back into the reading of each material fragment (the art object itself) to create a proliferating, durational movement in which each specificity is merely an instance in an endless flow of sensory and perceptual activity.

Colin Gardner