The Rain Man Of Santa Monica

Santa Monica is not a place where you think of people putting down roots. It's the western shore of Los Angeles, an edgeless city better known for alienated interlopers and crackpot visionaries like Aimee Semple McPherson and L. Ron Hubbard. But for Michael McMillen, 45, an artist who's supported himself in the past as a prop maker for such movies as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Blade Runner," it's practically ancestral turf. In the house where his grandparents raised him (his parents were divorced), he found toy soldiers he'd deployed as a kid still hiding behind the shrubbery 20 years later. McMillen hasn't changed that much himself: his current exhibition, "Michael C. McMillen: Habitats-Installations and Constructions" (through Feb. 9 at The Oakland Museum) is a big, melancholy playhouse.

One of the four large installations"Room 509 (Mike's Pool Hall)," 1977-91starts out with an old NO VACANCY sign above an undersize door. From there, the viewer has to get down on his hands and knees to peer, at the end of a funnellike hallway, into the doll's-house-scale pool hall. Like all McMillen's work, it's astonishingly "real": it even has one of those 1970s molded-handle portable radios in miniature atop the dusty pool table. And like all the other characters who are implied in McMillen's art, "Mike" and his patrons have long since departed.

The centerpiece of the show is "The Pavilion of Rain" (1987-91), inspired by a year the artist spent in Australia. Occupying its own custom-made gallery, it's the kind of corrugated tin shack where Dan Duryea might have holed up in a '40s B movie. Every half hour, actual rain bangs down upon it for 20 minutes, draining into a lake on the floor. Inside the shack, there's a crummy sink and a hammock; outside, it's festooned with slightly surreal junk-part of a tire, a snow shovel and a truncated bar sign that spells out ... ILROY'S. To take the piece over the top, a four-foot-long wrecked steamboat hangs from the gallery ceiling alongside the shack and casts its eerie shadow on the wall.

What does it all mean? It means decay, and the kind of loss you feel when that steamboat's carcass is washed up on the rocks, or tumbleweed drifts through a ghost town. Our American past is so recent it hasn't been fossilized into abstract history. In southern California, where, along most streets, only one or two generations of architecture separate gringo civilization from the desert, the pang is most acute. You can still see the once brand new right beneath the soot-a fact McMillen adroitly exploits in miniature facades like "Club Saturn" (1991). Sometimes, as in the shack on stilts, "A Circuit of Desire" (1983), you can see further back, to the burial grounds of a society built on a simpler, more natural idea of kinship. Little skulls sit inside it, and a question mark is excavated in the earth below.

Judging from the handwritten viewer reactions in a notebook set out for the purpose, McMillen strikes a nerve in a lot of people. There's a long, heartfelt remembrance of suburban childhood from a college student. Someone else writes, "I think this is neat. Age 5. Name: Miyoshi." Perhaps this popular appeal is why McMillen isn't considered the heavyweight he ought to be. The art world seems to think his work isn't intellectual enough, that it's merely a toy railroad set up by Magritte. But McMillen does what every serious artist is supposed to do: he gives an original twist to a vital tradition, in this case, L.A. assemblage art that runs from Ed Kienholz through Chris Burden. And McMillen's work isn't just about easy nostalgia; it's about the difficult subject of abandonment.

Most likely, McMillen is still dealing with his abandonment by his parents. But he's subsumed it into a greater metaphor for the rusting of the American dream. McMillen catches our past before it becomes antiquity, while it still hurts a little. And while, in a sense, it's still alive.