Amid the Pandemic, Artist Duo Miller & Shellabarger Contemplate Fragility of Life

According to some estimates, over the past two years, more than 6 million people have died globally from Covid-related complications. Is it possible, then, to contemplate such an unfathomably big number while also providing a salve to all that loss? The married artist duo Dutes Miller & Stan Shellabarger have set out to do so with an exhibition at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center that opens April 10.

The show, “Loving Repeating,” draws its name from the 1925 novel The Making of the Americans by Gertrude Stein, which traces the stories of two families across multiple generations. “She talks about history being made by the repetition of the everyday, over generations, [as] a kind of infinity,” Miller recently told ARTnews. “These ideas of togetherness and separation have run throughout most of our collaborative efforts, embracing these moments because they are fleeting. This is not a new idea but one that comes to the front of the mind during these trying times.”

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Though the duo has been contemplating the fragility of life for over 30 years, the mood of the pandemic’s current moment syncs neatly with the subject matter they have been working with for decades. The major themes of the artists’ exhibition, and their practice in general, are “togetherness and separation, loving and grief,” Miller added. “The pandemic has really brought those issues to the front of people’s minds, so I think now the work resonates well with what we’ve doing for years.”

The show’s central work is a giant mural—80 feet by 20 feet—that features various vinyl-painted silhouettes of their bodies in undulating patterns. On either end is a 20-foot version of themselves. The silhouettes slowing graduate into smaller sizes. They show the duo dancing, wrestling, stretching, and having sex from behind. The mural is an update of a style—cut-paper garlands of their silhouettes the artists have been making in various forms for 15 years. Because paper could tear during the production of such a large work, the duo opted to create these new garlands in vinyl instead.

Miller & Shellabarger, who first met as B.F.A. students in the late ’80s at Illinois State University and continue to maintain their own separate practices, have also designed the mural with a forced one-point perspective, to make it appear as though the piece is “receding into the wall,” Shellabarger said.

Two smaller paper versions of the silhouettes will also hang in this space, starting at the opposite wall, at seven feet tall, and slowly shrinking to two feet tall, before meeting at the mural’s pinch point. Also included in the exhibition is a participatory performance in which visitors can aide the artists in creating paper cranes. Once complete, visitors can throw them over a balcony from the center’s mezzanine into a pile that will grow as the exhibition progresses.

The exhibition, which runs through September 3, has been in the works for about 18 months, so the initial planning came at a time when the artists still weren’t quite sure how—or if—the public could access their show.

“Stan and I still had our doubts that everything would be open,” Miller said. “We wanted to bring the inside of the show to the outside, to have something visible in case the exhibition really wasn’t open.” Accordingly, a five-channel video installation accompanying the show will see animations of the silhouettes projected onto the Hyde’s windows.

Video projection of rotating black silhouettes of two men.

Dutes Miller & Stan Shellabarger’s video projection for “Loving Repeating,” 2022, at Hyde Park Art Center.

The materiality of paper figures in the exhibition in a rather surprising way. When Miller & Shellabarger have staged installations of their paper silhouettes previously (at their Chicago gallery Western Exhibitions in 2015 and at Sindikit Projects in Baltimore in 2016), they would gather the works together at the end of the exhibition and burn them. At Hyde, they have designed two alcoves that will each contain an 8-inch-by-8-inch pine box urn containing the ashes of each scorched installation. At the end of the Hyde exhibition, the paper elements will also be burned.

For decades now, many conceptually minded artistsfrom Raphael Montañez Ortiz to Banksyhave produced works in which destruction is key to the object’s transformation into art. Miller & Shellabarger are a part of that lineage—once burnt, their paper-based works are no longer extant. And if there are surviving objects in the artists’ work, they are the end-results of performances that no one ever witnesses.

“The documentation is intentionally very different than the actual performance itself,” Shellabarger said. “I’m very resistant to video documentation because it’s not the same piece. If you don’t come to the performance, you just don’t get to see it, period. There isn’t another way for you to experience it.”

Two alcoves that are half constructed in a gallery

Dutes Miller & Stan Shellabarger’s alcove installations for “Loving Repeating,” 2022, in progress, at Hyde Park Art Center.

That relates directly to the importance of temporality with the works on view at Hyde Park. The silhouettes, which grew from a series of photographs they created to document the passage of time as it impacts their bodies and selves, also refer to a desire to record their lives together. Miller said that the form adds another layer of meaning. In Miller’s eyes, a silhouette is “a representation of absence and refers to a body that is not there and it always does.”

But ultimately, the duo’s works won’t last forever. “They have a finite period of existence, and they disappear,” Shellabarger said. Miller added, “That relates directly to the way that we talk about death and mortality: take advantage of your life, live in the moment. When it’s done, it’s done. The work that represents that doesn’t need to be stored or kept in a precious way that is false.”

“It extends the metaphor of life being fragile, of life not being enduring,” Shellabarger continued. “Things can change in a moment. That’s always been true. The pandemic has just brought that to the forefront and brought it closer to home.”


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