by Mark Van Proyen
Many years ago, the summer doldrums prompted Bay Area galleries to band together for a collective event called Introductions, those being debut presentations devoted to artists showing for the first time, usually recruited from the previous spring’s round of MFA exhibitions. After a 20-year run, this annual event gradually fizzled out and disappeared (around 2002, maybe earlier). Here, we honor its lingering spirit by highlighting an exhibition of a previously unexhibited artist in a new gallery away from the beaten path. The artist is Spike Milliken, and the venue is the UMA Gallery located in the Temescal district of Oakland, both repurposing the old Mosswood chapel that was once an upscale mortuary recently gone to seed. The almost 100-year-old building is worth a visit in its own right, showing aspects of California craftsman design and Spanish gothic ornamentation. In addition to hosting exhibitions, the UMA Gallery also plans to devote time and space to performance events.
Milliken’s 28 graphite drawings (all made in the past two years) are complimented by 42 sculptures, all presented in what was once an embalming room appointed with antique fixtures and an ominous “delivery” door. All look very much at home in the gallery’s haunted mansion environment. Many of the sculptures had a prior role as models for the drawings; they look to have been observed under controlled lighting and pictured as half-visible ghosts emerging into consciousness from an obscuring fog, running a gamut from slyly ominous to outright monstrous. This uncanny conjunction of disquieting image and subtly understated execution sneaks up on unsuspecting viewers, ambushing them when seduced into close inspection. In attitude and spirit, they are metaphysical pictures that tip their hats to the work of Giorgio De Chirico and Rene Magritte while also saluting Surrealist photography and old-timey science fiction cinematography.
Several things account for this seduction. One is the small size of the drawings, none larger than 11 x 14 inches and the majority smaller than that, prompting the viewer to stand close so that they can spring their steel trap ironies. The other is Milliken’s light touch, which downplays gesturalism in favor of a clustering technique akin to cross-hatching. The marks seem to coalesce of their own account, like iron filings subjected to demonic magnetism. Still, they describe their subjects with remarkable subtlety and shimmering detail. For example, in a simpler Time, we see a bucolic landscape with an absurd-looking factory apparatus looming in the background like a sinister medusa formed of contorted pipes and clotted
conduits. In garden II, Milliken evokes the tension between nature and artifice with another architectural form partially covered in dilapidated shingles, revealing glimpses of an interior made of jerry-rigged trusswork. In a more subtle vein, the visit describes a ghostly, two-headed figure trepidatiously approaching a barren tree with a murder of crows perched in its branches. It’s one of the more Kafkaesque works in the exhibition, although that description applies all the drawings to varying degrees.
Only a few three-dimensional works are larger than a coffee cup, albeit only slightly so. Most are smaller. The latter are ensconced in clustered groupings inside antique vitrines worthy of the Adams Family. new machine stands out from the larger ones partly because it is a precise model for the architectural form featured in garden II. Made of ceramic, epoxy, plastic residue and acrylic paste and surfaced in an industrial grayish brown, it looks like an obscure archeological artifact. The same materials appear in thought machine, which seems to be a model for the factory apparatus pictured in a simpler time.
Many of the three-dimensional works are figurative, evoking the freestanding figures of Alberto Giacometti executed at a Lilliputian scale. Some look bloated, others emaciated. A group of seven male figures has strange block-like objects covering their heads, looking like ceremonial headgear designed by a young Robert Smithson. These are collectively titled gentlemen (nos. 1-7), all partially fashioned from hobbyist’s models subjected to unscripted amendments and elaborations. This assortment of small figurines seems particularly suited to their embalming room environment as if intended to accompany some deceased person on a journey to a heavenly afterlife.
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Spike Milliken: “Things to Come” at UMA Gallery to September 2, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.