Gay partners put their relationship on display at Inova/Kenilworth gallery

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To artists Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger, ultimate loss is a part of true love. That duality is a foundation of their truth, and it’s echoed both in their work and in their lives.

The Chicago-based husband-and-husband artistic team explores the deeper human and artistic continuum in their installation “Miller and Shellabarger: Hiding in the Light.” The installation runs through July 15 at Inova/Kenilworth, the gallery affiliated with UWM’s Peck School of the Arts on Milwaukee’s East Side.

In addition to following their individual muses in a variety of media, Miller and Shellabarger are performance artists, and the statements they choose to make often govern the art form they select.

“We use the medium to define the artistic process, and the process is part of metaphor,” says Miller, 45, whose unusual first name was also his grandfather’s nickname. “My preferred medium for our collaborative work is performance art. For me, that’s the most satisfying.”

The pair’s best-known performance piece opened their Inova showing on April 20, when each sat across from the other crocheting opposite ends of a long pink tube. Known as “Untitled (Crochet),” the artists began knitting the work in 2003, starting with a single chain of crochet that closed into a circle. It eventually grew to its current 65-foot length, and it represents the couple’s enduring relationship.

“It’s not for sale and it’s never going to be finished until one of us can no longer crochet. It will then be the other person’s job to unravel the entire work,” Miller says. “It’s a living metaphor of our time together.”

The couple’s time together began when the two former art majors met in ceramics class at Illinois State University at Normal in the late 1980s. After each earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1991, they moved as a couple to Madison, where Shellabarger earned a masters in fine arts at the University of Wisconsin in 1996. The pair then moved to Chicago, where they have continued to practice their art and live their lives together.

With shaved heads, long beards and a work-wear wardrobe that could cause them to be mistaken for northern Wisconsin bachelor farmers or members of a ZZ Top tribute band, Miller and Shellabarger appear an unlikely pair of gay men, especially when crocheting in both artistic and non-artistic settings. They’ve crocheted in galleries, coffee houses and public parks from Basel, Switzerland, to Portland, Ore., as they continue their work.

The artists are often approached by people intrigued by their unusual appearance and their even more unusual work. They always engage the audience, but they never try to explain their art.

“We don’t try to tell people what the performance means,” says Shellabarger, 43. “You don’t walk up to a painting and ask it what it’s about. The audience ultimately decides what a piece means.”

The same holds true for audience members who learn the artists are gay despite their non-stereotypical appearance, he says.

“We don’t care that we’re queer. It doesn’t seem unnatural,” Shellabarger says. “Our work is about a relationship.

It’s not about a queer relationship.”

Expressions of that relationship extend to everything they do, including the series of silhouettes of the artists that grace Inova’s wall. Some show the pair with their beards intertwined, others show the artists making contact in different gentle and meaningful ways.

Over the course of nearly 20 years, Miller and Shellabarger have worked in multiple media, both individually and together, investigating issues of love, relationship and existential separateness. Some of their most popular performance pieces even explore afterlife possibilities.

In Portland, the pair mounted a performance piece called “Untitled (Graves).” Both artists dug proportionally sized side-by-side graves, laid down in them and then dug a tunnel between the two so they could hold hands. The work speaks to life after death and the ability of love to endure, Shellabarger says.

“When people see the (‘Graves’) piece, they have a strong reaction,” the artist explains. “It’s really about everyone’s relationship, not just ours.”

Given the subject matter of many of their works, it would be fitting for the artists to have an epitaph in mind to define their conjoined career. But Miller hesitates when asked to create the perfect phrase to memorialize them for future generations.

“It would be great to be remembered for how we might have changed people’s minds about what a gay couple looks like and what love is,” he says.

Time will tell. Until then, they’ll continue to crochet.