Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with Michael C. McMillen: The Alchemy of Things

by Richard Whittaker, May 27, 2002



I met Michael C. McMillen at his home and studio in Santa Monica on a sunny afternoon.

Richard Whittaker:  When you showed me the little lawnmower gears and said how you found them beautiful just in themselves-- I know that feeling so well-- and I wondered if you’ve reflected about that, how some objects one finds are perfect just the way they are.

Michael C. McMillen:  Yes. You can’t think of doing anything further sometimes. When I see an object, especially a discarded object that looks interesting, I think about who made it and why was it made, because a lot of times you don’t know what these things are for. They’re so abstract when they’re taken out of the context of their application that they become little sculptures in themselves.
     Even as a little kid I used to take my wagon up and down the alleys in Santa Monica. I’d bring home old radio sets and take them apart and put all the parts into different boxes—there was an interest in finding things and then using those parts to make something else.

RW:  So it goes way back.

MM:  Since I could walk, pretty much. My grandfather had a little workshop out in the garage and had these little jars full of nails. He used to take apart fruit crates and re-straighten the nails and save them. We’re talking another era—he was born in 1873, so he grew up in the nineteenth century! To me, as a kid, that was very normal behavior. I didn’t realize until later that it was cheaper to buy a box of nails than to spend the time re-straightening the old ones. But that was the paradigm I had growing up.

RW:  Were you with your grandfather a lot?

MM:  Yes. My grandparents pretty much raised me. He passed away when I was eleven in 1957.

RW:  And your dad. He was traveling around?

MM:  He lived here part of the time, too. Then he got married again and was living elsewhere. I was pretty much raised by my grandparents.

RW:  Have you reflected on the ways in which artmaking might connect one to early experiences?

MM:  Yes. That question comes up periodically. I’m always dealing with the idea of the past—and meaning in the future. Where are we on that continuum?
So there is something poetically satisfying for me about using societal discards—taking something that seems to be at the end of its useful life and then re-inventing it. It’s like a re-birth.
     Let’s say I find a "widget." A widget was made to do what widgets do, but the widget is thrown away, and now here’s this discarded widget. Maybe now it gets re-incorporated as something else that’s no longer a widget and transcends its first identity and becomes a vehicle for an idea. That’s kind of a goofy idea about—I don’t think it’s a spiritual idea—but there’s something about time and meaning I’m always trying to come to grips with.

RW:  Time and meaning—and you said something about where are we on a spectrum of past present and future? Can you say more about that?

MM:  It’s an intriguing question. I think certain aspects of Buddhism have a lot of appeal in that area for me. The idea that all things have a time of existence and a time of disappearance, endlessly—the wheel of life going on forever. Everything around us is the same, and yet distinctly individual simultaneously. Everything we see is part of the earth which, by extension, is part of the universe. I don’t want to sound like hokey, homespun theology, but that’s kind of how I see it. We’re all an expression of some kind of energy.

RW:  There’s the problem of how to speak about something that’s really profoundly true and not sound hokey or feel apologetic.

MM:  Exactly. How do we do that without sounding like a Hallmark card or some kind of pop psychology book? It is profound, and there are questions that are unanswerable, but we can always ask the question.
     It’s really about the journey. In our own lives we follow interests and pursuits and goals, and every day is a new beginning, a new birth actually. It takes us in ways that we can’t imagine. That’s kind of wonderful. It’s about being alive. We don’t know what’s coming next. It’s got to be a curse to know the future.

RW:  I agree with what you’ve said. And I also know it’s difficult to be open to these possibilities that are appearing all the time. To find that attitude is not so easy, it seems to me.

MM:  No it’s almost against the culture. We’re trained to acquire things and to have these long-term goals. I guess these help to give one direction and help one to define things, but it’s all an illusion.
     Things happen. I mean, look at 9/11. Do you think any of those people in that building thought they wouldn’t see their retirement day?
     A friend who is into Buddhist philosophy once told me that God’s idea of a joke is "planning for the future." Basically we have no control over it.
RW:  It’s a most persistent illusion though, isn’t it? It’s a rare moment when I see that.

MM:  I think most of us—certainly a lot of times I am totally deluded by my fantasies of being in control. I’d be the first to admit it. It’s human nature. We want and need to feel that we are in control.

RW:  So how is it that you’ve come to value this deeper truth that our control is far more illusory than we would think?

MM:  Part of it may have been being raised by two adults who were children in the nineteenth century, my grandparents. I think growing up as a little kid when your parent figures are in their seventies has got to have an effect on you. All their friends were elderly and there was a lot of talk about the Civil War and World War One. The whole shift in time back to way before I was born. And watching them age and eventually pass away. All of those were things I had no control over. I think accepting that was an important revelation of the temporal nature of all matter, and how it will change regardless of our desires one way or another.
     I was also a science major in college before I went into art and one of the basic tenets of physics was this idea of constant motion and change—by implication. Nature is not static. It is totally dynamic. Things disintegrate, decay, break down and are then re-incorporated into other systems. So my molecules will remain after the corporal collection called "Michael" goes away. They will be incorporated into other manifestations of the earth.

RW:  It’s sometimes said, "we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us." Until recently it had never really occurred to me how much of all that I take to "be mine" may well have been given to me, may come from what has gone before. Am I making any sense to you?

MM:  Totally. We all have so much that we owe to the past, to the people before us, to the culture. Art, for example, is basically all built on the history behind it. People we’ve met have influenced us. We’re an amalgam of all these experiences.

RW:  Many of your works are elaborate. One thing they do is play with social references, references to the past and sometimes references to what may lie on the fringes of society. Can you say something about how your pieces say things about our social reality?

MM:  Sure. I grew up here in Santa Monica. As a kid it was pretty much a small, blue-collar town. One of the biggest employers, now gone, was the Douglass Aircraft Company and most of my neighbors worked there. I can remember going on field trips in elementary school to see how they manufactured airplanes back in the fifties. They still had propellers. I didn’t read art books. I read Popular Mechanics and Popular Science because I wanted to make things. I always liked to work with my hands. Part of what I draw on I think is a remembrance of America—of the milieu where, if you wanted something, you had to make it yourself, or you fixed the old one instead of getting a new one. That is pretty much gone now.
     One of my neighbors, a guy named Ken Strickfaden, did the special effects for the original Frankenstein movie. My grandmother and his wife were good friends. He lived up the alley. I can remember countless times coming home from elementary school and walking down the alley. If his garage door was open, I’d go in there and say "Hi" to him. Usually he’d have a Tesla coil running or a Jacob’s ladder zapping. He was building all those kinds of things and he used to rent them to the movies. So that’s where I got my first impressions of science, watching him in his workshop, and I wanted to do that too.
     What I didn’t realize was that I liked the aesthetics of science and not the math. Later in college I realized I wanted the expressive qualities that liberal arts, writing or making art, offered. But nonetheless it gave me a perspective that people who only studied art wouldn’t have. I studied chemistry and used to have a chemical lab behind my grandfather’s workshop.
"M 13" 1980, 10' x 14' x 34' installation at St. Mary's College art gallery

RW:  At what point did your pursuit of chemistry lose its luster?

MM:  Second year of college. I just dropped my calculus, dropped my German class, dropped my other classes and switched to art and never looked back.
     You remember when Sputnik went up? And all nuclear attack duck and cover drills? At that point science was really being emphasized, even in elementary school. I started thinking about going into science then. All through junior high and high school that was what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I got into college and had to take an art course for non-art majors that I really realized that it brought me back to something.
     My father was an artist— he made this dinosaur [picks it up] for me as a kid out of paper mache—an anorexic tyrannosaurus rex. So I grew up being very comfortable with that procedure, but I never thought I’d make a career out of it until later. I came full circle and it was an "aha!" revelation, one of those epiphanies you have in life. But I couldn’t have gotten there any other way than how I did.

RW:  There’s a drive, something inside that compels one to this endeavor of artmaking, wouldn’t you agree?

MM:  Yes. I think so. I like problem solving. I also like the idea of communicating with other people, and although I work by myself most of the time, I’m not a hermit. What I like about the art is that it’s the vehicle for communicating the ideas. There’s some kind of need to reach out, I think, whether you’re a singer, a dancer, a painter, writer, musician, composer—those are all ways of giving something. You’re putting something out there, whatever that is. People take or they ignore it, but that begs the question—why are you doing it anyway? What’s the point? Well, what is the point?
     Sometimes I like to make things I’d like to see that don’t exist. Sometimes it’s just for my own entertainment, but I think it goes beyond that. I think we have these feelings about deeper issues, although they may not be illustrated by each piece we do. That’s probably the value of a retrospective. When you look back on a career of work, the subtext is always there. Specific pieces may be different but there are ideas which are consistent.

RW:  In science, the role of feeling and sensation aren’t given much of a place. I’m having some trouble formulating this, but take the lawn mower gear, isn’t there something in regarding an object, that is deep?

MM:  Yes. You can see that in nature sometimes, in a seed or a part of a vertebrae or a rock. In this case, it’s a man-made object—which is still nature. You’re right. There is something that can transcend the object—the transcendental meaning there.

RW:  I would like to say there can be something deep about some things we tend to disregard, tend not to think of as offering this possible opening toward something deep.

MM:  It’s like the poet sometimes makes visible the invisible by calling attention to it. I mean poet in a broader sense. A musician can be a poet, or a writer, an artist. By poetry I mean something that transcends the structure of language, that maybe hyper-communicates something beyond language.
     It’s a funny area, because words at times, fail. That’s why we make visual things sometimes, because we can’t do what we want with words alone. Or we might use the words in conjunction with the visual.
     When people categorize you as this or that kind of artist, it’s kind of a meaningless term because it’s all open for you, You use whatever you want to use. It can all be art. Those sub-categories are just arbitrary distinctions for ways of expressing concepts.
"Aristotle's Cage" installation, Oakland Museum, 1983 

RW:  When I think of "the artworld" I don’t even think of artists exactly. I think of institutions…

MM:  Yes. Galleries and commerce and that whole other… It’s like an inverted pyramid with the artist at the bottom, the little point. There’s all the stuff he’s supporting, this mega-structure overhead. [laughs]

RW:  It’s a curious situation. The artworld exists on top of the artist, as you say, but it doesn’t—as I see it—really have much of a relationship with the basic things that move the artist. And I wonder, why is that?

MM:  Maybe because these things can’t be sold or commodified that way. It’s like grabbing smoke. If you grasp it, it goes away. And so you have to accept that and work with that. You work with smoke by appreciating it and enjoying it, but you can’t hold it. Whereas art as commodity becomes product, something that is tangible. It can be bartered, traded, leveraged, all that stuff. So once the artist finishes the work, he’s finished with it. It becomes a physical object subject to all the forces of the marketplace. It’s now in another category.
     One of my first shows was a reaction against that, the idea of commodification, way back when I was in art school. I built a whole installation of phenomena that couldn’t be possessed. There were bubbles running through a spot light in a black room, little sprinklings of glitter through a light beam in a dark room, sounds, things that were totally experiential and intangible. You had to look at them and remember them.
     That was a show back in the late sixties. It was an early reaction against the commodification of ideas. But I’m not opposed to objects. I love the physical world. I love dealing with things and touching them and playing with stuff.

RW:  I’ve noticed that a lot of your pieces have qualities that suggest the margins, the outsider point-of-view. Do you feel yourself sometimes as "an outsider"?

MM:  I’ve always felt like an outsider. On some kind of fringe somewhere. I always felt like some kind of misfit, even as a kid. I always felt different, not with any implied arrogance, but I felt I didn’t quite fit in. So I was happiest working by myself in my garage workshop. Even in high school some of the guys would come over and want to go out, go to a game, and often I would just stay in my shop with my test tubes and listen to some old jazz on the radio.
     I’m still doing it! [laughs] I just loved that! We live in our heads so much. That’s where all the synthesis takes place, but every so often you have to stop, put down the tools, and go out and see your friends, reconnect with the human race. It’s this funny dance between the public and the private.

RW:  One assumes that with the outsider comes a sense of alienation, resentment, loss, etc., but I also get a feeling that there’s an affectionate quality present towards these worlds that you’re building. I’m thinking specifically now of the Robot piece with the TV in the Armory show.

MM:  I’m glad you mentioned that. I’m not looking down my nose at anybody. I’m the last person to do that. I see perfection as an illusion, so I want to get right past that from the get-go. I don’t want to make things with perfect surfaces, or perfect whatever because that’s an illusion to me. So I always try to depict my objects with some indication of their own mortality. Often the buildings are depicted in some state of having a history behind them. I like the idea of things having a history of existence prior to when we encounter them.
     So that installation in the pit out there [Pasadena Armory Show] was really made from old stuff. It looks like it’s been there for a long time—this whole little habitat happening under the floor of the armory. It’s meant as an affectionate observation of our proclivity of accumulating objects around us that are important to us as an expression of who we are.

RW:  I do feel a lot of affection connected with that piece. And in talking with you it does seem to me you are a person of very warm feelings. I hope that doesn’t sound too sentimental.

MM:  Oh, I love people. I really do. I love my friends dearly, and a lot of these things, I build for them—hoping they will see them, or it will make them happy, or it will do something for them. And, by extension, whoever is interested in them! I’m glad to have them look at the work.
     In a lot of ways, the work really isn’t complete until it is looked at. The viewer is really the last link in the puzzle. They complete the piece. The meaning of the art is different for each person who looks at it. We all have different histories and points of view.

RW:  I’ll tell you my own little story about your piece at the armory.

MM:  Oh good. I love hearing how other people see my pieces.

RW:  When I first saw the robot sitting there in front of the TV, I watched the movie he’s watching. He’s sitting there with a beer in his hand. That was what I thought he had in his hand.

MM:  Perfect. [laughs]

RW:  I’d thought, yeah, "He’s having some brewskis." So the next time I looked at the piece earlier today, I saw that the brewskis are actually cans of oil—maybe brewskis for a robot. And strangely enough, I’d imagined the empty cans on the floor as having been crumpled.

MM:  No, just dropped. [laughs]

RW:  My mind did that little trick. So the robot is watching a movie on the TV. I saw the movie as representing an account of the world, or an account of something important for the robot to understand. But the movie is not easy to understand. Strange and mysterious things are happening, but it’s hard to understand what they are or what they mean. Some of them are alarming. More could be said, but anyway, I decided that the brewskis were for helping the Robot deal with his anxiety. I saw this as a general reflection on the times we are living in and the problem of meaning.

MM:  That’s valid.

RW:  How did this piece evolve for you?

MM:  I got a call one day from Jay Belloli out at the Armory who said, "We’ve got this hole in the floor. Want to do something with it?"
     I went out and looked at it and decided this would be the perfect place for a little world underneath the floor. I knew I wanted to have this lonely, singular figure. The principle tension in this piece is this robotic figure looking at this strange television set. Everything else is supporting that. On one level it could be me. I look at my own studio and see what a mess it is. But it’s much more complex than that. There’s obviously metaphor upon metaphor in that piece, the brewskis, the clicker and the tv and that passive interaction there. It could be related to society or technology.

RW:  Words are a faint reflection of your pieces.

MM:  There is something about being with some object or in a situation in real time that you can’t reproduce. Whenever I take photographs of an installation I’m always disappointed because it’s only one little moment and one point of view, whereas being in it and walking around in it is another matter, like "The Garage" over at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There’s all the time you spend in there, and the things you hear and the things you see and smell and touch. It gives your mind time to free-associate, to go back in time and to zoom ahead in time. 

"Goofy's Last Voyage" or "Critical Thinkers Struggle to Distance Themselves from a Foundering Theory"  [oil on panel.]


I started out as an artist making paintings. I still do, but most of my work went toward installation. At one point way back when, I had a revelation that although I love painting I really wanted to surround the viewer in the experience. The only way I could figure out how to do that was to make a three-dimensional space that you could enter, and to work with sound, smell, lighting and with tactile things all at once. So I’ve been doing installations since the late sixties. Even as a student, I began building installation works. But at times I’ll work in photography or drawing or painting. People ask me, what kind of artist are you and I answer, "Well, I’m a visual artist." That covers a lot of territory.

RW:  When you visualize a project does it sometimes turn out exactly as you visualized it?

MM:  There are always changes, which is fine. It’s always part of the Zen surprise. But you need a starting point. You think you’re going here, but you end up over there. That’s fine too. Usually the overall effect is pretty close to what I was hoping for.

RW:  Do you ever have a problem with a project that doesn’t get to a place you want it to go.

MM:  Yes. I once had a painting I started. I put it down and one day I picked it up and finished it. It was ten years to the day from when I had started it. It was just a coincidence. What I learned early on was that you can’t beat up your muse. She doesn’t like to have her arm twisted. Whenever I’ve done that, I’ve paid for it. I learned just to let go and to move on to something else. I always have a couple of things going at any one time. Usually I have multiple pots on the stove. It keeps me fresh. That way, if you’re having a problem, you move to another project. Meanwhile your subconscious is working on the project you left behind. When you’re ready, you go back and the solution is there.

RW:  The little film in your piece at the Armory is titled, Motel Under the World— a very evocative phrase.

MM:  I think titles are very important. A lot of times pieces will come out of something I’ve written or something I’ve read somewhere. Or sometimes a title will suggest a piece. So you’ll never find one of my works that says, "untitled." I love titles. Titles are little gestures towards the viewer. The viewer can take them or leave them, but they’re important.

RW:  This is a question of poetry, isn’t it?

MM:  Exactly. It’s poetry. The title of an artwork is a poetic gesture. It informs the work. It informs the person looking at it. It helps guide them in the general direction.

RW:  Words have atmospheres like clouds around them and those clouds are active. They have a kind of alchemical effect, right?

MM:  The poetic, alchemical, ethereal kind of gestalt. The kind of milieu of vapor that informs. I like that. It’s true. So titles can form the piece or they can inform the piece. [A plane is heard overheard and McMillen excuses himself and rushes outside. In a minute he’s back. ] "That was a B-25!"

RW:  You recognized the sound.

MM:  I’m a big airplane buff, especially propeller planes. It was a North American B-25 medium bomber, a Mitchell. They have radial engines and have a certain sound. When I was a kid, Douglass Aircraft had a surplus shop that would be open from 8 to 12 on Saturdays and I used to go down there with my allowance. I’d buy sheets of aluminum and bags of rivets and stuff. I’d come back and make suits of armor out of them, breastplates, helmets. It was wonderful.
     My dad worked in television at that time, so I would get to see behind the scenes in television, and of course, the movie studios were here. So this was very much an active physical manufacturing center when I was growing up in the fifties. There was an abundance of surplus materials.

RW:  I would hazard to say your work exhibits the influence of being exposed so much as a kid to the world of Hollywood—the theater and drama of it.

MM:  I loved that! My dad had wanted to be an actor. His career never took off. He was in amateur theater and did some television work early on. So we would drive up Olympic Blvd. past the old Fox back lot and we’d see the castles and bits of the Norman fishing village and all that stuff. And there were always trucks from Paramount or Universal up the alley loading up Tesla coils and mad scientist gear from my neighbor. So I grew up in this crazy place where it was all possible. There was definitely the element of the theatrical here. I’d go see my dad in plays at the Miles Playhouse. So yes, guilty as charged!

RW:  How would you describe what is it about this world that attracts one?

MM:  I think it takes us out of our normal lives and lets us be somebody else for awhile. And while it does that, maybe it addresses basic questions of humanity. Death of a Salesman, The Glass Managerie—those are heavy things, but once we get into them we just slip off into that world and live with those characters for the hour or two it takes to tell the story. It’s all story telling.

RW:  Your installations are little worlds in themselves, theaters of a kind—theaters in which stories are invited to appear.

MM:  I see them as open-ended narratives where the viewer really completes the equation as the last missing element. The piece at LACMA certainly works that way. It’s a full-sized simulation—a simulacrum, to use a buzzy word—of a kind of typical mid-century American garage, Everyman’s garage.
     When we go in there, we’re suddenly ten, twelve years old. Where’s Mr. Jones? He’s not here, so let’s check it out. You go through these special doors I built and instantly, Richard, you’re no longer in the county museum. It’s no longer the year 2002. You’re swept back in an instant to another era. There are night sounds, crickets. It’s night. Some lights are on. There is a short wave radio playing in a little laboratory room. The guy is gone, so we can look around …It just transports you to another world!
     It’s best when you’re there by yourself. It creates a spell and lets you revel in your own memory.

RW:  I’ll go see it tomorrow.

MM:  If you have any trouble finding it, just ask a guard, "Where’s the garage?" That’s the generic name that everyone knows it by. It’s real title is The Central Meridian.
     I was thinking about the meridians of acupuncture and those yoga things, chakras. I did it as a kind of portrait of Los Angeles in a funny kind of way. It was done in 1981 originally. The model I built it after was the Egyptian tomb where the pharaoh is buried with all his possessions. But instead of his canal barge and all his gold and furniture, we have a typical American garage from mid-twentieth century with a car and all the artifacts the person has saved. Instead of the afterlife, it’s retirement as the afterlife here in a working culture.

RW:  That strikes me as very poignant.

MM:  It comes out of what we talked about, growing up in Santa Monica in a blue-collar neighborhood with this work ethic and with the acquisition of things as indicative of status and who we are. But everything in there is not brand new. [laughs]
     What’s there is an amalgam of a lot people I grew up with. I have some of my father in there. It’s really my homage and reminiscence of being a kid in America in the twentieth century, and also being an American and what it means growing up in a land of plenty. How that skewed my vision of reality, and how I look back on that now.
     I remember one time I was in the installation years ago and a woman was in there. She didn’t know who I was, and she was explaining to her sons what this was, what a garage was. They had grown up in an apartment building out in the San Fernando Valley. The sons didn’t know what a garage was with a car in there, a work-bench. It was all there, but it’s all an illusion. It’s all built.

RW:  That must have been an enjoyable moment for you.

MM:  Yes. I love people. I guess that’s how I tell them that. I make these things that I hope they will get something from. I like to make things that I myself would like to stumble upon by surprise.

RW:  There is one piece I wanted to ask you about that I saw in your big Oakland Museum exhibit a number of years ago. I think it was called Train of Thought. It left a deep impression.

MM:  It was done for a gallery that is no longer extant. It was part of the Security Pacific bank. They had a gallery space in Orange County and did some wonderful programs in their brief existence. At one end of the gallery I build a "domestic tableaux" with that cabinet of curios over there [points to a cabinet standing nearby]—an easy chair, wainscoting, some funky wall paper, a window, a reading light, a chair and some newspapers. And at the other end of the gallery across the expanse of an empty gallery what you saw coming out of the gallery wall was a miniature trestle about six or seven feet high. It looked like some kind of strange mining operation jutting out of the wall into the gallery. At the end of this trestle on the floor you see a yellowish, amber conical pile of what you might think is sand, or earth. Then you notice there’s a conveyor belt on this trestle and you see that very slowly, there’s a steady dropping of these yellow bits of sand or whatever they are, piece by piece. This installation ran for six months and so the pile got quite big. It engulfed the whole two end pilings of the trestle. So people who looked at it would get one effect, but if you walked up to it and were at all curious, and put your hand out and let the sand fall into your hand, you’d see each piece was an actual letter. So suddenly the sand pile wasn’t sand but a pile of deconstructed words. Again, a metaphoric piece. That was Train of Thought. ∆



About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.    


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