From now until October 16, Michael McMillen’s “Theory of Smoke” exhibition is on display at L.A. Louver in Venice.
Artist sculpts a world that exists out of time in L.A. Louver exhibition
By Bridgette M. Redman
It doesn’t take long to get immersed in the worlds that Michael McMillen creates. All you have to do is open the door to L.A. Louver and step inside.
From now until October 16, his “Theory of Smoke” exhibition is sharing space with two other exhibitions, with McMillen’s work snaking through the gallery, framing the others with his exquisite sculptures, invitations to worlds that could be a figment of the past or it could be a dream of the future.
His show is divided into three different areas — four if you count his contribution to the “No Mask Is Wholly a Mask” installation. The first is in the lobby, his “Cinema Futura” greets everyone that enters, inviting them to look closer, to observe the world beyond the doors.
“The main event in this element is this extraordinary interior tableau,” said Elizabeth East, L.A. Louver’s director and curator of the mask exhibit. “It is sunk into the wall. As you approach it, it is this dimensional piece. As you look in, you will have an unobstructed view of what appears to be a movie theater. You’re looking at a row of chairs. There is no sound element, but there is a very mysterious projection of the ocean.”
Also in the lobby is a machine that appears in the film elsewhere in the exhibition. It is an “Optotromic Visualizer,” East said. It sits on a desk with a nearby sign that says “Future Site of the Past.”
“Cinema Futura” is a piece McMillen started back in 1990, building the façade as part of another installation.
“I saved that part of the old installation, which no longer exists,” McMillen said. “I came across it recently in my archives and had an idea. I produced this new work. Sometimes my ideas take years to finish. Sometimes they’re very quick. It just depends. It is a serendipitous process of the interaction of ideas and sites, of thoughts I’m having.”
Visual poetry invites viewers to create their own narrative
More than just an introduction, it is the first part of McMillen’s work — to get to the next, you have to walk through the main gallery and toward some black curtains. Muffled noises greet the gallery visitors along with a sign that says “Observatory.” Beyond the curtains is a suspended sculpture, one that could almost act as a projector for the film that is playing in the otherwise dark room.
“It’s been lit very purposely so you see the reflection on the wall,” East said. “It is an untitled sculpture, but the proportions are like a viewfinder.”
Guests can sit and watch what is a slightly more than four-minute film that loops. It lacks a distinctive or chronological narrative, but suggests a story that the viewer must suss out for themselves.
McMillen has been making films for years and he said they are more poetry than prose.
“They don’t follow a traditional script,” McMillen said. “They’re more like visual poems that you put out there and people see them, and they bring their own personal stories and experiences to it. It means something different to everyone who sees it, depending on what the imagery does for them.”
Like his collection of found items that he works into his sculptures, the films are made up of clips and images he’s collected over the years. He said he explores the way that different images look in various orders.
“It’s like using language in a novel,” McMillen said. “There are hundreds of ways to write the same sentence if you’re using words. With things I’ve filmed, I can juxtapose them in all kinds of manners that can convey certain feelings for situations. I have more footage than I’ll ever use. It’s really an editing process of getting a narrative out of seemingly unrelated images, but when you put them together and add sound, suddenly they make sense or the viewer can find a certain logic in it as they see fit.”
Sculptures old and new capture elegant surprises
To get to the final part of “The Theory of Smoke,” visitors head up the stairs and walk through Yvette Gellis’ “Verdure.” Inside the room are several of McMillen’s sculptures, all richly detailed with surprising elements that require the viewer to observe from all different angles.
“This is really a survey exhibition that gives the visitor an overview of the subject, the diversity of the material and the complexity of construction,” East said.
East said it was McMillen’s idea to use the small south gallery for his sculptures. With its dark blue walls, it creates an interior tableau that introduces his work in a very candid way.
“Michael loved the proportions of this space,” East said. “It accommodated a discreet six or seven works that could be a survey and have resonance with each other. It would accommodate the title piece for the show and it would have a context with some of Michael’s earlier work.”
The sculptures all take on the impression of architecture, of buildings that could belong to the past or to an as-yet-unknown future.
“For years, I have been fascinated by using images that derive from architecture,” McMillen said. “And not necessarily pristine brand new, but architecture that has been around for a while and seems to have some sort of history. It is somewhere on that timeline between creation and when the bulldozer comes. I love being able to take them and combine them in different orchestrations, to make these fanciful landscapes. It’s like a dream.”
Childhood pastimes become backbone of artistic creation
The exhibition at L.A. Louver presents McMillen’s new film installation “Observatory,” a time-based wall installation, and a selection of sculptural creations.
McMillen traces his artistic methods back to when he was a small child and had a Radio Flyer wagon. He grew up in Santa Monica and he used to pull his wagon up and down the alleys by his house and would find lots of interesting things.
He recalled finding World War II artifacts — an aviator’s sheepskin flying helmet, a pilot’s hat, old radios, anything that captured his interest. He got in the habit of taking things apart and storing the parts in boxes and jars and then later making other things from them.
“I didn’t think it was art,” McMillen said. “It was just something really interesting to me. I enjoyed doing it. It made me wonder why it was like that. It was an interesting time to be alive. It was still the analog age. I’d listen to the old tube radio at night with my grandfather. We had an early television back in the 1950s, a Motorola TV.”
His father was a scenic artist and an amateur actor, and he grew up in the world of people working in the film business. In the 1950s, McMillen would go down to the old studios and catch tantalizing views of castles or frontier stockades peeking over the fences.
“To a kid, it was just agonizing,” McMillen said. “I wanted to see it so bad. LA has always been a very creative city on all kinds of levels.”
As McMillen became an artist, he started using the objects he’d collected and the collection grew for 40 years until 2013 when he was getting ready to move out of Santa Monica after spending 67 years of his life there.
He said fortune smiled on him because he was invited to do an installation in Paris. McMillen met with them and said he had the perfect piece to make for them, but there were two conditions. First, they had to send over a shipping container. Second, only two items could come back to him, the rest they could do with as they wish.
“So that’s how I got my studio cleaned up,” McMillen said. “I made this beautiful piece — it’s a huge walkthrough piece. We built an L-shaped building in this 30 by 40 space.”
He still loves the process of transforming familiar items into unusual juxtapositions, creating things out of what exists in the culture and reengineering it.
McMillen has exhibited many times at the L.A. Louver in its 45-year history. This one continues his story.
“There is always that sense of being transported into a different place and time,” East said. “There is a lot about memory or an impression we have of certain aspects of America….There is a whole different world that Michael offers you, but he gives these worlds a beauty and mystery to them that is very much all his own.”
Exhibition seeks to unmask ideas on identity and revelation
“No Mask Is Wholly a Mask” brings together the work of 20 artists to examine the idea of the mask, and what it is to wear a mask or take off a mask, both literally and figuratively.
Masks have taken on new meaning since March 2020. Once something we relegated to the realms of theater or Halloween or masquerade balls, masks became a part of our every-day life, an essential accessory for being out in public.
For different people, masks became different things. East said that for her, wearing a mask represented that she respects others. At the same time, she recognizes that for others, wearing a mask was restraining and meant a lack of liberty or it was “un-American.”
“We ascribe a certain degree of meaning on masks,” East pointed out.
She wants the exhibit to magnify how a person feels with a mask, how people present themselves and what it means to someone else looking at a masked figure.
“It goes back to the question that we all wear masks, whether literally or metaphorically,” East said. “Now we are all literally wearing a mask and it is interesting that it has become a controversial subject.”
The exhibit is one of three being shown at L.A. Louver from now until October 16. The others are McMillen’s “Theory of Smoke” and Yvette Gellis’ “Verdure.” McMillen also has a bronze piece in the mask exhibition titled “Head I, 1998.”
The mask exhibition is a group show featuring the work of 20 artists, some living, some dead, some local, some international. It is a multimedia show with paintings, drawings, photography and sculptures. All but one piece was created before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This show came together in a very natural way,” East said. “I was reflecting on a lot of what we hold in inventory and a lot of the artists we work with. Although this idea of masks is something we have lived with the last 18 months, all of this work came about before COVID-19. I thought it would be interesting to explore and look at these things made outside of our time and look at them in our time — if you want to define ‘our time’ by being when we’re wearing masks with COVID-19.”
Artists include Terry Allen, Sarah Awad and Tony Bevan, among others. The types of masks range from overt and literal ones like Jackel’s Gas Mask, Allen’s beaver-skin cap with a tail covering his face, while others have the implication of a mask, a metaphorical showing. Some are light-hearted, some are poignant.
At least two are based on historic events and are more about unmasking than masking. Sierverding created a work using her face and that of Claus von Stauffenberg, the German army officer who attempted to assassinate Adolph Hitler.
“This great piece by Katherine — she’s used her own face in this to really think about this extraordinary German officer who tried to assassinate Hitler,” East said. “If you know what it is about, it transports you to a different realm. He nearly did it, but he was discovered. His mask was taken off, so there is a poignancy in the narrative behind the subject as well.”
Another by Danh is a haunting image of one of the disappeared done in a chlorophyll print and resin. It reveals a picture of one of the young women who “disappeared” in Cambodia under the rule of the Khmer Rouge.
“The poignancy is literally talking about taking the mask off the Khmer and what they did,” East said.
Another large piece by Campbell is “Glitter Girl,” which was done in 2015. Her subject was Natalie Wood’s sister, Lana, who posed for Playboy in 1970. Campbell covers Wood almost entirely in sparkling glitter.
“In the original photography, she was, of course, exposed, but (Campbell) has covered her up,” East said. “She is looking at you through this—it’s a fantastic image. The beautiful light that comes through the hair…there is something quite intriguing and it is very effective in this work. There is something about it that makes you feel a little sad and complicit at the same time.”
Other works are self-portraits or pieces that reveal artists in different ways. Nor is it always clear what the relationship is to masks. East said that was intentional and part of the discussion that she wanted to spark.
“I didn’t want it to be a pedantic sense of a mask, hiding someone, but a bit more of an open territory,” East explained. The idea of masking and unmasking, of revealing people. This idea of masking and its opposite is a very open one. I hope that people will say, ‘I don’t understand, there is no mask in that,’ and I will say, ‘Why do you think I included it?’ It is asking you to think about it. Hopefully it will set up a dialogue.”
There was so much potential in the theme, East said she could have done a massive show with five times the space, but for now, there is plenty to reflect, challenge and discuss.
Artist finds strength and color during isolation
Artist Yvette Gellis’ “Verdure” is a group of seven large and four small dynamic new paintings created over the last year and hung in the gallery’s light-filled second floor space.
Artist Yvette Gellis found herself grappling with questions of life and meaning as she painted during the pandemic.
L.A. Louver is displaying Gellis’ work as part of its “Rogue Wave Project,” one of three exhibitions showing until October 16. Her exhibition, “Yvette Gellis: Verdure,” is a group of seven large paintings and four smaller “studies.” All were created during the past year and a half.
“My longtime investigation into painting took a turn,” Gellis said. “What is it like to be alive today during a pandemic watching the drama of our lives unfold? Deep in isolation, this series of paintings comes from my soul as my most authentic and relevant work to date.”
The series lives somewhere in the world of dreams, an abstract world where there are lithe figures inhabiting verdant greenery. There is thick texturing of paint to produce a lush view that challenges viewers to think about the connection people have to the natural world and their place in it. It is on the second floor of the gallery, co-exhibiting with McMillen’s “Theory of Smoke” and the group show “No Mask is Wholly a Mask.”
“The figures emerged from somewhere inside of me, into the here and now,” Gellis said. “Some days the work was a direct output of what was happening internally and on other days it reflected as a counterpoint to the negativities occurring on the world stage. I was giddy with joy in the studio. I fell in love with the figures like a divine romance.”
This is Gellis’ first exhibition with L.A. Louver. The “Rogue Wave Project” brings in artists that are new to the gallery and whom they feel are underrepresented. The four smaller studies are interspersed with the larger paintings. East said they often feel like preparatory paintings except that they have their own life.
“They can sometimes be reflections of aspects of the larger paintings,” East said. “They’re very dynamic. The pallet is very striking.”
The paintings are filled with rich detail and movement. As the title suggests, it incorporates nature and depicts people deeply connected with the planet.
“These extraordinary figures seem to grow out of this massive foliage,” East said. “These bodies are dissolving into something that is this green verdant atmosphere. They’re very powerful.”
East pointed out that the paintings are very positive. While they were born during the pandemic, the artist clearly believes in beauty and healing. They are paintings that show the ways in which we are a part of nature and that we have an effect on it and it affects us.
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