Red Trailer Motel
Cooley Gallery at Reed College, 3203 SE Woodstock, through June 13
There are plenty of art-making strategies that artists can use to elicit a surefire "oooh-aaah" response and to draw viewers in for a closer look. Two basic, can't-miss approaches include Nostalgia Fetish and an earnest simulation of the real. Photorealist painting will garner a second look every time, and in installations, a detailed mimesis of reality is usually a good start. The problem is that many artists are content to leave it at that, and their artwork produces no secondary or lingering effect. Veteran Los Angeles installation artist Michael McMillen is fully aware of all these principles, and employs them to jaw-dropping effect. With his soaring installation Red Trailer Motel at Reed's Cooley Gallery, McMillen uses both aforementioned approaches to grab his audience, and then subverts both traditions to throw viewers for a joyous loop.
Upon entering the darkened Cooley Gallery, viewers must pass through a creaky screen door, and once inside, the sound of slate gravel underfoot mixes with the songs of chirping crickets to create a late night, country ambience. In a corner of the gallery, McMillen has built an amazingly detailed reconstruction of an abandoned Wyoming motel. Employing ghost-town archetypes and mythologies, the sheet metal shanty is littered with rusted gas cans, oil drums, tumbleweeds, hubcaps, hand painted signs, and sun bleached cow skulls. It's an impressive construction--with the added audio, it would make a dazzling set for a Sam Shepherd play.
Simulacrum is only the launching pad at Red Trailer Motel, though. The motel doors are outfitted with peepholes, and glimpses inside the motel provide wondrous and even startling views. In addition to being a renowned installation artist, McMillen is also a miniaturist, and has created tiny models of forgotten interiors that look expansive through the convex lens of the peephole. In a deserted pool hall, one spirited ball rolls circles around a disproportionate dead fly. Peering into a trashed out warehouse space, the last thing one expects to see is a goldfish swimming by. Staring into these miniature worlds, I became aware of my own existence in McMillen's larger-scale miniature world. I experienced one of those beautiful Calvino/Borges moments of surreality and wondered where the peephole was that was looking in on me. Red Trailer Motel is the best installation to hit Portland since Beamsplitters in 2002. CHAS BOWIE