As you walk into the main gallery at the Oakland Museum of California you might hear a faint flicking noise—it’s the sound of tiny pieces of dried alphabet-shaped macaroni flying through the air and hitting the ground. Periodically spewing out of a delicate wooden structure that looks like an old train bridge mounted on the wall, these dried noodles are beginning to pile up. In a few months, 500 pounds of macaroni will be heaped onto the floor.
This is the title piece of Michael McMillen’s retrospective exhibit—called Train of Thought—which opens at the museum on Saturday. “You can think of it as deconstructed literature,” said McMillen during a walk-through of the show. “Letters and numbers, it’s all there and that gave the idea for the whole show—train of thought.”
McMillen, a Southern California-based artist, is known for life-sized installations that capture quotidian beauty with an extreme attention to minute detail. The exhibit at the Oakland museum is the first retrospective of his 40-year art career. Philip Linhares, chief curator for Train of Thought, has worked with McMillen for decades. “We want to have this be a tribute to Phil and Michael’s friendship,” said Lori Fogarty, the museum’s executive director. “People who know and love contemporary art will love this exhibition.”
The exhibition is featured in the main gallery of the museum and is interspersed throughout the permanent display. When entering the exhibition, viewers get a map of where to find McMillen’s work, which includes large-scale multi-sensory installations, sculptures, paintings, drawings, miniatures and films. In many of his pieces, McMillen toys with sound and light while using commonplace objects that often appear as something else, such as the oil drums in his installation called “Aristotle’s Cage” are made of orange juice cans and the cannons on “Raft of History” are bullet shells he found in the Mojave desert.
He also uses humor in his art. His earliest work on display is called “Mystery museum head of J.H.” It’s looks like a shriveled mummified human head that is sitting, mouth agape, on a blue satin cloth in a glass jar. This piece was part of an entire show that McMillen did in the early 1970s that was set up as a traveling mystery museum like one would see at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. “A lot of times people wouldn’t read the fine print and learn these were actually pieces of art,” said McMillen with a smile. He said some people thought the mummy head was actually real.
In his installations, McMillen likes to use movement. The first piece people see when entering the gallery is a mixed media installation that McMillen made in 1994, called “Dracula’s Daughter.” Coming out of a weathered black leather suitcase is an intricate wall-sized pulley system that moves a string up and around a series of large wooden wheels. Affixed at the end of the string is a piece of black paper that is slowly being dunked in and out of a big copper bowl filled with a milky salt solution. As the paper is dipped, an image is created on the paper that changes and evolves with each submerging. “It changes every day,” said Linhares during the walk-through. “The other day it was kind of a mountain scene.”
In a back room of the gallery are three large-scale installations, which really showcase McMillen’s creativity in using light and sound, making the viewer feel like they are in a different time and place. A prevalent theme in these installations is disrepair—“somewhere between the mom and the maggots”—said McMillen, “on the downward slope.”
The first installation, “Light House (Hotel New Empire),” is McMillen’s most recent work. In the dimly lit room is a scaled-down wood construction of an old hotel that’s leaning on stilts and sinking into a pool of water. On top of the hotel is a billboard sign that continuously plays “Quotidian Man,” one of McMillen’s films that shows scenes of old timey trailer mobiles, warplanes and people at the beach. “This is a riff on the ironic meaning of empire,” McMillen explained. “Because most empires fail.”
Walking around the corner, viewers reach the “Pavilion of Rain,” which is a mixed media interactive assemblage of a life-sized old shack sitting in a 30-foot pool of water. People can go into the shack, walk around and sit down. The installation is timed to rain every 15 minutes and when it’s not raining, there’s the sound of frogs and crickets. “I wanted to make a piece that takes you out of the museum environment,” said McMillen. “It’s like a three-dimensional collage. When you’re inside there’s beautiful silhouettes you’ll see cast on the walls.”
The third installation is called “Time Below,” which shows a life-sized tin-walled motel hung with rusty old chains, license plates and signs that say “live bait, ammo,” “Fear not, it will come,” and “See UFO landing site, 1/2 mile.” Each door in the motel has a peephole, which viewers can look through and see intricate little scenes of rooms with tiny bits of movement such as a pool ball rolling across a table or a door opening and closing. “Each viewer can create a story with their own imagination,” said McMillen.
Train of Thought opens at the Oakland Museum April 16 and will run to August 14, 2011. On Friday, April 15, McMillen will host a talk at the museum about the exhibit from 6:30 to 7:30 pm. Museum admission fees and hours can be found on its website.