For Michael C. McMillen, some of his fondest childhood memories involve pulling a wagon through the alleyways near his California home, collecting old radios and discarded items that he would deconstruct and assemble into something unrecognizable. Today the 74-year-old internationally renowned artist — who still goes by the email username “junkboy” — is busy creating evocative sculptures and short films at his Los Angeles studio that invite viewers to step into a world of make-believe.
McMillen has constructed immersive environments for his collection of unusual objects since the 1970s. The California visual artist also spent 15 years in the movie industry, creating props and special effects for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner (and recently celebrated a 35-year reunion with the original effects crew).
Headshot courtesy of the artist
Opening at PEM on October 10, The Pequod II derives its name from the whaling vessel in Herman Melville’s literary classic Moby Dick. The 17-foot fantasy ship, suspended from the ceiling, appears to be moving through space. We recently spoke to the artist about his work, which seems like it belongs on a sci-fi movie set as much as a museum gallery.
Q: What is The Pequod II made of?
A: The ship itself is made out of wood, metal and all sorts of detritus I collected around Los Angeles that would normally have no association, but become this new reality when together. The jet engines are hulls of old electrolux vacuum cleaners. I had one of my grandmother’s and was thinking how that would look cool as a jet engine on the back of this strange ship I'm building. I found another one at a scrap yard sometime. There are parts of old circuit boards, motorcycle carburetors and burners from stove tops.
Q: What about the billowing sails?
A: I built blowers hidden inside the hull of the ship that keep a constant flow of air on these silk sails. Here’s this ancient wind compulsion and then jet engines. They’re a contradiction, but they seem quite happy together. There’s an aspect of fantastical — some other worldliness that occupies neither space but occupies them both simultaneously.
A: I remember seeing a film about Moby Dick directed by John Huston. As a little kid that really stuck with me. The story is quite moving and was actually based on a true story of a ship in the early 19th century called the Essex. A whale rammed itself into the ship and it started to sink. The crew ended up reverting to cannibalism to survive. This inspired Melville to write Moby Dick.
Q: Did you always want to be an artist?
A: I started college as a science major and at some point decided I wanted to make art instead. I’m fascinated how we, as humans, project our thoughts and desires onto what we see. We all see through our filters. A lot of pieces I built appeared to be one thing, but when you objectify them, you realize what they were originally.
Q: What do you hope visitors leave with when they see this installation?
A: I hope they come away with questions. Art works best when it raises questions. I think it's arrogant to believe it'll provide answers. Maybe they come away seeing and noticing things differently. I think kids can relate to it more, too. They have open minds and soak it up.
Q: How would you describe your work?
A: Sometimes I see my work as these narrative poems that the viewer finishes for me. You can control your art to a certain point, but once it’s out there, it's on its own. I like the idea of it having specific meaning to different people, based on their own life experiences.
The Pequod II detail shot courtesy of the artist.
Q: What was your earliest memory of cinema and films?
A: The earliest film I can remember was back in the early ‘50s. I was raised by my grandparents in Santa Monica, California, and they had a Motorola television. As a kid I would turn on the TV set softly and watch mostly post-war Italian and British films. I remember being riveted by these. I saw La Strada that way.
Q: How did your father influence you?
A: My dad wanted to be an actor and came to LA from New York. He ended up working as a scenic artist in early television. I have a lot of memories of visiting him at the studios.
Q: How did you end up on the movie sets of Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
A:After graduate school, I ended up in the film industry. They saw one of my pieces of a highly detailed miniature and I was hired. It was a great day job as an artist. I did that for 15 years or so. The first film I worked on was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And the last feature I worked on was the original Blade Runner. I did a lot of work on the blimp that flies around and built some elevator cars of the Tyrell building.
Still from Blade Runner, 1982. Courtesy of Ladd Company/Warner Bros./Alamy
Still from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977. Courtesy of Colombia/EMI film/Alamy
Q: Talk about the role of play and the benefits of letting your imagination roam.
A: Play is important your whole life. Sometimes people see pieces like this and will hopefully see their surroundings somewhat differently. I think that’s a nice part of art, it makes you wonder.
Q: How have you been staying busy at home during quarantine?
A: I’m working on a new series that are fragments of these imaginary, wall-mounted buildings. I like the spontaneity. I'm also going to incorporate little films. If you look closely, you can identify them. I like the viewer to participate in the experience by offering them something they can imagine.