Michael McMillen is a visual artist in the very broadest sense, careful to avoid narrowly defining just what it is he does. “The medium has to be in service of the idea,” he told an audience of students at Art Center College of Design in 2005.
McMillen’s shifting and overlapping job descriptions — sculptor, installation artist, printmaker, cultural anthropologist — reflect the fact that he is a searcher, never quite sure what he is looking for, always hoping to be amazed by what he comes across. A leading edge baby boomer — he was born in 1946 — his childhood was marked by a curiosity about the artifacts of postwar California.
Raised mainly by his grandparents, McMillen was surrounded from an early age by things older than he was: elderly people, antique furnishings, objects that had seen better days. Being older, his grandparents also tended to let him roam. Some of McMillen’s childhood memories involve pulling a wagon down the alleyway near his their house, collecting junk that he would later organize and create stories about. Since many of neighbors were veterans of WWII, or had worked for Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, McMillen often found items that conveyed the faded poetry of war and industry.
His imaginative drive also reflects the influence of his father, an actor who also worked as a scenic artist. Eventually McMillen Sr. worked for Channel 11, and Michael would visit him there. Walking among the sets, which he realized looked very different on television, got him thinking about the artifice and “duality” of media images. While attending Santa Monica City College he decided to become an artist: an epiphany that he says came to him like a “snap of a finger.”
After earning his MFA at UCLA McMillen promptly gained attention for his mixed-media sculptures and constructed environments. “Like films,” wrote one commentator, “McMillen’s fastidiously constructed works function as portals into other worlds…” While building his reputation as an artist McMillen also did odd jobs in the film industry, creating props and special effects for “Blade Runner” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Since winning the LA County Museum’s “New Talent Award” and landing NEA Artist’s Fellowship, both in 1978, McMillen’s career has never faltered. His groundbreaking 1981 installation “Central Meridian (The Garage)” featured the cluttered interior of a 60’s garage/workshop/catacomb, complete with the rusting bones of a Dodge Dart. Doug Harvey, writing for the LA Weekly, says that the piece “…remains one of the most subtle, poetic and experiential critiques of the institutional art environment ever devised.”
Over the years, McMillen’s interests as an artist have remained remarkably consistent. Deeply aware of the evocative power of things, he has been accumulating and re-assembling “objects of interest” — some would call them detritus — all his life.
Artist bio courtesy of http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-seed/michael-c-mcmillen-artist_b_743942.html
India ink on paper, 1993
6 3/4 x 5 3/8 inches
Gift of Dr. John Menkes in memory of Joan Simon Menkes