After enthusiastically following their work (both individually and as a couple) for many years, we want to highly recommend the husband/artist team of Dutes Miller & Stan Shellabarger. They have a show currently up at Western Exhibitions Gallery (free and open to the public until Nov 13). This description is from the gallery’s website:
Western Exhibitions is pleased to present an exhibition by husband-and-husband artist team Miller & Shellabarger. This second showing at Western Exhibitions of Miller & Shellabarger’s collaborative pursuits will focus on works from several inter-related projects including Volume 6 of their large-scale silhouette artist books, documents from a recent performance involving funeral pyres and intimate, discrete objects that utilize embroidery and carved shells.
The silhouette is a key component in several of these new works. Miller & Shellabarger first employed silhouettes in large-scale artist books that contained their individual profiles, each one cut by the other. We will show the most recent book in this series as well as other silhouette-based works that use the silhouette as a starting point, including conjoined beard silhouette collages traced by friends and two embossed lead pieces that feature similar imagery. We will also show larger-than-life, phantasmagorical images, created during their “Summer Studio” artist residency at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Sullivan Galleries in 2010 which take advantage of the distortions of the silhouetted figure in light and shadow. Life-size body tracings of each other are realized in large drawings on paper made with gunpowder, and in a small book of photographs of body tracings made with seeds.
Additional work will include a twin set of pillowcases, each monogrammed with their initials using hair from their beards as thread, a delicate cameo depicting the two with their beards intertwined carved out of sardonic shell by an Italian master carver, and photographs from a recent performance “Untitled (Pyre)” where they found two naturally fallen trees in the forest, chopped them, and stacked the fireplace-sized pieces into roughly human-size forms, and burned these pyres at dusk.
Miller & Shellabarger are a 2009 recipient of the Peter S. Reed Foundation Grant, 2008 recipient of an Artadia Award, and a 2007 recipient of a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation award. Their work is in the collections of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Gallery of Canada in Ontario. In 2010 they showed a major selection of work at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland, Maine, participated in the Time-Based Arts (TBA) festival in Portland, Oregon and will have a solo exhibition in 2011 at the Illinois State University Galleries in Normal, Illinois. Their work has been written about in Artforum.com, Art & Auction, Frieze, Artnet, The Art Newspaper, Flash Art, TimeOut Chicago, and the Chicago Sun-Times. Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger also maintain separate artistic practices. They live and work in Chicago.
A recent article by Erin Rook, published in Just Out, a GLBT publication in Portland, so perfectly captures the meaning, process and spirit in their work that we concluded Ms. Rook says it so much better than we could. (Slightly edited for length. See full text here)
Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger explore the dynamics of love and loss through performance pieces that emphasize the artistic process as a metaphor for the cycles of life and death, of connection and separation. The Chicago-based couple has been creating collaborative works since they starting dating 17 years ago, bringing together their respective fascinations with the body to produce performance art that speaks to universal themes in relationships in a distinctly physical way.
Their collective work focuses on the ways bodies relate. Past performances have included braiding their beards together, intentionally acquiring sunburn while embracing and a project (ongoing since 2003) in which the men crochet opposite ends of a pink tube that both separate and connect them.
Miller and Shellabarger’s art often challenges stereotypes about gender and sexuality, sometimes intentionally and other times inevitably. Many of the couple’s performances incorporate a domestic element—crocheting, sewing, origami—and their masculine appearance alone contradicts perceptions about queer men. “Whether we want it to or not, because of our relationship to one another, the personal becomes political,” says 41-year-old Shellabarger. Miller adds that while his own individual work has a clearly intentional queer focus, their collective work does not. It’s simply “a matter of fact.” More from Miller: “Just because we’re two men and we’re in this relationship, it’s queer. One of the things we hope is that it’s something other people can look at and see themselves in, both straight people and queer people.”
Still, as obvious as the nature of their relationship seems to the artists, it doesn’t always translate. In Europe, the couple has found their sexuality to be both understood and a non-issue. “It seemed incredibly obvious to them that we were [queer],” Shellabarger says. “So their interpretation of the pieces often didn’t have to do with that. It had to do with this relationship between the two of us, they didn’t fixate on the fact that we were queer.”
In the United States, however, audiences are resistant to even acknowledge that they are queer, puzzling over what the nature of their relationship could possibly be. “People will ask us if we’re brothers, other people will think we’re friends and some people will be in complete denial even after we tell them,” Miller says. “There’s this denial that masculine men are gay because gay men are always effeminate, so it’s this constantly confronting stereotypes.”
However perplexed some audiences may be by the exact nature of their relationship, the threads running through the couple’s recent work could not be more universal. Miller says they have been inspired in part by “The Work of Mourning” by Jacques Derrida.
In the piece the couple will be performing at the Time-Based Arts Festival in Portland, Oregon, “Untitled (Graves),” they explore connection through and beyond death. Miller and Shellabarger will each dig a size-proportional grave (“Stan’s will be taller and narrower, mine will be wider and shorter,” Miller explains) on the grounds of Washington High. After lying in the graves, they will dig a tunnel between the two through which to hold hands. Whether the graves are a full 6-feet deep will depend on the terrain and weather. But regardless of the depth, Miller says lying in them is a moving experience.
“You’re really thinking about death in a very purposeful way that doesn’t necessarily occur in life all the time and what it means to anticipate the loss of your lover,” Miller says.
“Untitled (Graves)” is not the couple’s first piece exploring death. Over the summer, the couple performed “Untitled (Pyre)” in which they each cut up fallen trees and piled them into stacks resembling funeral pyres and burned them. “The two trees ended up serving as doppelgangers, one for Dutes, one for myself,” Shellabarger explains. “We … stacked them into a funeral pyre so it was very column-like, making reference to the body and then at sunset set them on fire. It was this idea of self-emulation, or the destruction of, the disappearance of the body.”