It's a garden but that's no snake

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  • Dutes Miller
My first exposure to Dutes Miller was a piece he'd done with fellow artist and frequent collaborator Stan Shellabarger. It was a tintype, one of the earliest forms of photography, featuring the two men sitting side by side in a doorway. They stare rather seriously into the lens, as people tended to do back then, and with their long, grizzled beards, they look decidedly historical—like gold-rush-era prospectors. At first glance, the photograph appears archival. But then you look closer and see that Miller's hand is gently placed on Shellabarger's thigh. It's this anachronistic display of intimacy that clues you in to the fact that this photograph is a thoroughly modern creation. Miller and Shellabarger have been married for 18 years, and it would be difficult to overstate the poignancy of their collaborative work. Their tintype series, featuring the couple in various subtly affecting poses, mines the contradiction between the period technique and the contemporary subject, rooting the image of the homosexual union in history. They also work in highly symbolic performance art, once digging two graves connected by small tunnel through which the artists held hands.

And then there's the small man diving out of the disconcertingly large asshole—otherwise known as my first exposure to Dutes Miller as an individual artist—which is not at all what I expected from one half of the collaboration that I loved at first sight.

The lone Miller differs wildly from Miller and Shellabarger. So much so that initially, it was nearly impossible to reconcile the two. The tintype struck me first as powerful and viscerally moving. My reaction to the asshole dive moved my gut in a very different way. Miller does a lot of work with collage, appropriating and manipulating images from gay porn. The pieces are overt, explicit, and often willfully grotesque. And had I not been introduced to his collaborative work first, I would have passed Miller right on by. I would have dismissed the work as showy and exhibitionist—dick for the sake of dick.

But here's the thing—I'm constantly fighting to reconcile the incompatible aspects of my own being: the liberal and enlightened lover of art and the nice midwestern girl who averts her eyes. I wanted to dismiss Miller's work because I didn't want to look at it. It was only because I knew that he was capable of producing such quiet, lovely pieces with his husband that I went to talk with him about his own art at all. Mea culpa.

As it turns out, Miller is well versed in snap judgments and foregone conclusions. His new show at Western Exhibitions, "In the Garden," is an exploration of cultural expectations. Continuing his work with images from gay porn, Miller has created a series in which carefully constructed identities are stripped of their signifiers. Unlike his earlier work, which was a dizzying mash-up of lips, tongues, pecs, and no-no places, these pieces feature intact bodies obscured by layers of acrylic and gouache. Often situating the figures against open-air backdrops, Miller is questioning the relationship between nature and construct, asking if in fact there is any such thing as natural.

Gay culture is rife with a fixation on type. As much as the straight world engages in gay stereotyping, gay men are often quick to categorize one another and themselves as a particular archetype. There are bears, twinks, twunks, and queens—types identifiable by outward appearance and marked by attending social behavior. Miller believes that because the process of coming out can be so frightening and isolating, some gay men are quick to assign themselves a readily recognizable identity. Like Adam and Eve suddenly cast from the garden, they seek the safety of a place to belong. But in Miller's garden, we're left with only shapes and empty constructs—universal forms lacking any individual instantiation.

Issues of type and identity recur in the work perhaps because they're issues that Miller often confronts in life. Neither he nor Shellabarger necessarily fits society's overarching expectation of what gay looks like, and people are often surprised to learn that "the bearded dudes" are a happily married couple. "Because unless you're effeminate," Miller says, "people don't see you as queer." A New York Times piece once mentioned a Miller and Shellabarger performance and referred to the artists as twins, the fact that they have different last names and don't look anything alike notwithstanding. Apparently having long beards was enough to render the two men essentially identical, blank forms upon which a notion could be projected.

In The Garden opens tonight at Western Exhibitions and there won't be any need to avert your eyes. Dutes Miller has done it for you.

5-8 PM, Fri 12/13, Western Exhibitions, 845 W. Washington, second floor, 312-480-8390, westernexhibitions.com

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