Welcome to Hell

Photo by James BunoanM.C. McMillen's “Museum of Distraction” doesn't come through with everything it promises—it doesn't even come close—but what self-respecting huckster would?

I was halfway through the marvelous and eerie Museum of Distraction—I'd seen with delight Hanna the Fortunetelling Mouse, but neither hide nor hair of the Well of Perfumed Ecstasy or the Red Sons of Jupiter—when I started yelling. “What the hell am I looking at?” I wanted to know, surrounded by rusted iron bedsteads, a bunch of broken-down models of things that looked like U-boats, tomato cages on old tires, and then, in the darkened blue room with a pair of sinister and vacant rocking chairs facing each other, a screen showing grainy home movies. That's when all the gallery folk excused themselves. I still don't know. It's the most confounding thing.

The only extant themes, which McMillen seemed to jumble together indiscriminately though they would have made two fine distinct shows, were the decrepit, Something Wicked This Way Comes Americana of the long-lost carnival (now that even Barnum N Bailey are trying to outclass Cirque du Soleil) and the decrepit, scary Americana of the lonely roadside motel. With small rooms that are half-Bates Motel and half the creepy, isolated motel in the underrated Identity, McMillen offers twisted junk and shadows, and then pretends to beg your forgiveness for his odd and unthemely digressions by offering pennies on the dollar of the two-headed delights he'd promised. It's a classic bait-and-switch, and it's been a minute since a sucker was born.

The entire time we're in the Museum—which the preparators at Cal State Fullerton have created with exquisite attention, down to the discombobulating gravel walkway—we stand in the dark. It's borderline too-dark, except it's perfectly necessary. You can't see terror in the light of day.

And the Museum is terrifying, with its insistence on shadow as an architectural form, its insistence that it's only in the shadows that we can see the darker truths. Then there's all that Midwestern decay and lost worlds and mirrors scummed over by time until you—a vital, cultured art-lover!—look into one and see nothing but a dusty, broken ghost. But then, happy, happy! There's a con of a carnival attraction to keep you nice. It still could use a fake mermaid awfully bad, or some pickled creatures. Pickled creatures are happy-making.

Assemblage works are often just a pathetic lot of broken trash. Even the Beat legend George Herms, who pioneered the field, recently had a show at Square Blue Gallery that was pop armchair psychology at its easiest and most sad: here was a faded, broke-down hero with nothing to show but rusted junk.

But when an artist isn't broken and sad, when he's a curator of his junk instead of just a pack rat, when there's a point to be made from his crazy un-collectibles, and when the result is as skanky and pitty as a Kansas prairie—on purpose—and takes joy in that skank like a carnival barker takes joy in a two-headed calf, well, then you pull up to the madhouse and sit a spell.

“M.C. McMillen's Museum of Distraction” at Cal State Fullerton's Main Art Gallery, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3262. Open Tues.-Fri., noon-4 p.m.; Sat., noon-2 p.m. Through Oct. 2. Free.

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