The new work “Loving Repeating” is at the Hyde Park Art Center
Spend enough time in the Chicago art world and you’ve probably noticed Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger. They cut an eerily repetitive figure in a population known for its exhaustive individualism: both middle-aged, both male, both bald, both sporting long, full beards. The couple, who married in 2014 and have been making art together since 1993, also dress alike when performing, usually in basic American guy clothes: jeans and t-shirts. plain t-shirt. How to make the difference ? Dutes is short and thick, Stan tall and lanky.
In what doesn’t sound like a bold move for Chicago at all but a glaring necessity in terms of the more bigoted parts of the American landscape, the Hyde Park Art Center features the duo’s largest work to date. “Dutes Miller & Stan Shellabarger: Loving Repeating” features a 20-foot by 80-foot hand-painted black and gray mural of the artists’ bodies, replicated, flipped, and layered 200 times in a range of poses. Huge black paper garlands of their silhouettes hang from wall to wall in the gallery. Similar shapes reappear, multiply and contort in five animated videos projected onto large windows overlooking the street. Also included are the harbingers of what is to come: a pair of small pine boxes filled with the ashes of previous paper shows. In September, when this ends, he too will be ceremonially burned, with the remains then encased in a wooden urn.
Miller and Shellabarger, who also maintain independent art practices, have done plenty before. They work in series and iterations, returning again and again to favorite patterns. Silhouettes? They made their first in 2005, for a large-scale artist’s book in which each cut out the shape of the other. Garlands? They’ve hung curtains of them in exhibits since 2015. They’re people who appreciate the possibilities of repetition, as everything clearly shows, of their appearance under this exhibit. The titular reference is to Gertrude Stein, who in her 1925 modernist novel “The Making of Americans” wrote: “To love to repeat with some is still in them an earthly being, with some it is the path to complete understanding. She also wrote a poem which included the line, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call her the fashion-forward goddess of form.
Artists do well by their laureate. Every year they publish a book sewing together every sheet of waxed paper that wrapped every stick of butter they cooked with in their kitchen that year. There is a multi-volume set of “Coffee Books”, each page bearing the stains of cups from that day. They inscribed their common monogram on worn and dirty household surfaces using a magic sponge eraser and embroidered it into pillowcases with beard hair. They dug their own graves twice, once in Switzerland and once in Oregon, always with a hidden tunnel in between to hold hands.
Repetition is meaningful only to the extent that one is able to notice subtle changes in variation. And for a show that involves hundreds of naked adult male silhouettes, “Loving Repeating” is surprisingly subtle. (Did I mention that all the silhouettes of the performers’ bodies are nude? They are. Sometimes it’s important, sometimes it’s not. The dominant protrusion here is the beard.)
The exhibit is full of suggestiveness and associations which, like a Rorschach test, tend to tell more about the viewer than anyone else. In the mural, which repeats horizontally and introduces new forms vertically, the overall effect is that of a wildly divergent wallpaper pattern. I found interlocking horses, quatrefoils, diamond shapes, yoga poses, sex positions, and classic children’s games, the latter three being comically hard to tell apart from each other. The garlands are read in a more relational way, from one figure to another, kissing, struggling, becoming one or holding each other’s genitals. Shadows add to the multiplicity effect, with sunlight and spotlights casting even more Millers and Shellabargers onto the gallery walls, warped and delicate, swaying in the HVAC breeze.
The videos, made in collaboration with artist Steve Reinke, kaleidoscopically merge, quadruple and rotate the bodies of Miller and Shellabarger into multi-armed gods, intricate bridges, a team of hobby horses, hourglasses, missiles – and nothing. There are moments in every video where the proliferation reverses, where all those bearded men converge on a single point and disappear, leaving the screen blank. For a few seconds, everything is still and empty. Then the videos resume their loop, and the cycle begins again.
It could be called the stuff of life, in the sense that existence is birth and death until the end of time, with much eating, sleeping, cleaning, playing, working, thinking and having sex between both. We repeat, hopefully with at least some variations, until we can’t take any more. Miller and Shellabarger, with as much wisdom as faith, planned it all: in 2003, they started crocheting a tube of pink yarn, one at each end, never touching but always increasing the material that binds them. It was well over 100 feet when last checked years ago. The knitting is happening publicly and jointly — as it will in a handful of scheduled performances throughout the duration of this show — and it will continue until one of them is no longer able to. At that time, the surviving artist will publicly unravel the textile, marking the first solo performance of “Untitled (Crochet)”. Plans for non-woven yarn are not yet known.
“Dutes Miller & Stan Shellabarger: Loving Repeating” runs through Sept. 3 at Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave.; tickets at 773-324-5520 or hydeparkart.org