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Exploring Human Relationships: A Dialogue with Miller & Shellabarger, Pt. 2

The following is part two of the interview, “Exploring Human Relationships: A Dialogue with Miller & Shellabarger.” Read Part I Here. While Part I focuses on the artists overall process as well as various themes and materials that accompany their work, Part II concentrates on their inspirations, how their performance work veers from the theatrical aspects of performantive works, what they hope the viewer can take from their work, and so on.

DJ: Where do you guys take inspiration from? Who are some artists you’re interested in?

DM: At least the performance work is really derived from performance work being done in the sixties and seventies. Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

SS: Burden, Vito Acconci, and Rebecca Horn. There is a long list of people whose work is really body centered and endurance work. There are direct lines you can make.

DJ: I can see that especially with the Vito Acconci and his use of personal pronouns in involving the viewer in the performance. That use of “I,” “You,” and “We” automatically involves us in that process.

SS: Right, I mean we break in many ways in that we don’t have this separation. Performance work and even performance work now is really theatrical in ways that you have a separation between the performer and the audience.

DM: Sometimes performers put themselves in a meditative state, like Marina Abramović. With her work she’s physically there, but she’s not engaging the audience totally.

SS: And Acconci sort of always threaded that “I’m sitting at the bottom of the stairs. If you come downstairs…” It’s kind of this daring thing. Then Seedbed, where you’re made to be aware, but you can’t see him; there is a physical separation.

Miller & Shellabarger, Detail of "Beard Braids," 1996, Hair and thread. Image Courtesy of Western Exhibitions

DJ: At this point in your career you both have traveled around the world. Have you noticed a difference in reactions to your work in other places?

DM:  Yeah, when we were in Switzerland the first question that people didn’t ask was, “What are you doing?” We’ll tell them performance and the response often is “What’s performance art?” They were a couple of steps past that. The popularity of performance in America diminished after the seventies. It wasn’t very well known with a lot people, but in Europe that didn’t happen. It’s more common. Also, the nature of our relationship—of us being lovers and husbands— was something that people just knew. Whereas here people often ask and then don’t believe us when we tell them that we’re together. The thing that was funny in Switzerland is that there is a part of Switzerland where there are these dairy farmers. They have long beards and they thought that we were Swiss. Somehow, they thought we were dairy farmers who became performance artists [laughter]. That was pretty funny [laughter].

SS: Yes, that confusion was a whole new confusion [laughter]. There was none of that questioning of our relationship, which meant that they had a much quicker read of the piece and what was going on. They had all these questions, but they would skip the first three or four questions that typically came up.

DM: The conversation went further into the nature of performance or the relationship to other performances they’d seen.

SS: They would talk about what the piece meant to them. They knew that we were performing. They knew that we were obviously a couple. They were interested in the metaphors and the materials as a metaphor.

DM: It was also interesting when we performed at PS1 in New York at the New York Art Book Fair. There was no one that would act like they were interested. You would see them watching, but they would watch from somewhere else. I think that’s because New York has this reputation of being very worldly, very seasoned, and a little bit distant (especially within the art world).That was a very different way of people engaging with us.

SS: People aren’t used to engaging in performances.  Maybe they were thinking they were being polite and that we wouldn’t talk to them. Then they realized that we would. That happens very often.

Miller & Shellabarger, "Untitled (Monogram)," 2010. Beard hair and thread on pillows. Image Courtesy of Western Exhibitions

DJ: When did you first start using your beards as a component of art making?

DM: The first use of a beard was at a coffee shop called Mother Fool’s in Madison, WI. We went inside of the window, braided our beards together, and sat there until we couldn’t take it anymore. We cut them off. The main documentation is our beards clipped off in frames. One of the things for me is that beards come up at the onset of sexual maturity. It’s a symbol of being a mature sexual male. That has something to do with it for me.

SS: A lot of the silhouettes we were doing were single silhouettes that ultimately turned into these large scale books. We started doing silhouettes with our beards conjoined (conjoined silhouettes), where we were attached in some matter or were in costume. They’re long enough now that we can stand back to back and still tie our beards around our heads if we want to; that’s something that we couldn’t do before. Also, we ended up using our beards in these monograms, where we actually couched our hair onto textiles. One of which was done as pillow cases with a ciphered S & M. It was this double entendre. Having a long piece of hair makes that process so much easier. The longer the hair, the cleaner the line. It’s hard to say if the long beards made us think of that or that it was just fortuitous that we already had the beards to do it.

DJ: Do you guys considered your work to be a commentary on queer relationships or relationships overall?

DM: Yes, both because we’re queer and a lot of information we’re bringing to it is our information. We hope that it’s not too narrow in scope that other people can’t think about human relationships in general.

SS: When we were at Art Chicago years ago, there was this older Italian woman who chatted with us while we were doing the crochet piece [Untitled (Pink Tube)]. She wanted to know how long we would be there, and I’m like, “Oh we’ll be here for another three hours.” She’s like, “Well fantastic. My son is getting married. I think he really needs to see this.” She came back later and really wanted him to see the piece. She was like, “This is what you’re getting into when you get married.” I thought it was very sweet. It didn’t matter that we were queer. It was this metaphor for marriage and she just wanted him to sit with it for a while, watch, and talk with us.

DJ: What do you want people to get out of your work?

SS: I kind of hope they get patience from it. While the work is incredibly autobiographical, I see a lot of people come up; both queer and straight. It’s a mirror for them. That’s when it’s the most flattering. I feel that it worked when people make that connection that flips a switch in your head.

DM: It would be great if our work changed peoples’ ideas about perceptions of whom and what people are and the way you need to examine the way you look at the world.

SS: It’s like black men in neighborhoods that are poor are drug-dealers. They’re really going to play basketball—that’s all [sarcastically]. Maybe people should think about that. If our work helps people look outside that complacency, that’s great!

Miller & Shellabarger, "Untitled Silhouette (Conjoined 26)," 2009. Image Courtesy of Western Exhibitions

DJ: Going back to the silhouettes for a minute, I’m curious do you get the Kara Walker reference often?

SS: Oh yeah! I like Kara Walker’s work, but our work is not at all like hers. Obviously, there are the cut-paper silhouettes [laughter], but they’re really different from one another. Her work is much different in that ours is much more grounded in portraiture, whereas hers is much more grounded in stereotypes and allegory. There isn’t the same narrative going on. Her works are made to really intentionally make everyone who looks at them uncomfortable. No one is safe. Everyone is part of it, which I like about them.

DJ: I met her a couple years back. She had a lecture at the University of Chicago as part of their Art Speaks series. There’s all this controversy surrounding her work—the most famous being the Betye Saar letter controversy.  Saar views Kara Walker’s work as reprehensible and portraying negative black imagery. When asked about Betye Saar’s work at the lecture, Kara Walker said something to the effect, “I’m not saying that work didn’t do anything for the discussion of race. I’m saying it didn’t do enough.” So she’s deliberately trying to force you into a dialogue that not everyone wants to have.

SS: It’s hard [laughter].

DJ: It is hard [laughter], but I think that’s the point. Its like, “We have to have this conversation!”

DM:  It’s very different from Adrian Piper’s work, but in the same way she’s not letting anyone off the hook with that discussion. Also, if you’re not willing to talk about race, nothing is going to change for anyone because you can’t be like, “Everyone is the same.” Its like, “No, everyone is not the same and isn’t that great.”

SS: Everyone’s treatment isn’t the same and that’s where the tension starts to happen. To get it to change, you have to acknowledge it and talk about. It’s uncomfortable so people don’t want to talk about it. You can’t keep passing it on because that’s the problem. You keep passing it on [laughter]. It’s long overdue.

Miller & Shellabarger, "Installation view of 'Hiding in the Light'" 2012. Institute of Visual Art, Milwaukee, WI. Image Courtesy of Western Exhibitions

DJ: Any views on the Chicago art scene?

SS: I always feel like it’s so much of it that I don’t know anything about. I just know about it really peripherally. I never get to engage with it. In some ways, I’m much more interested in spending time in my studio, sometimes to the detriment of not getting to see stuff that’s happening that I am interested in.

DM: I think the Chicago art scene is really great. It’s super diverse. On a regular basis, there are probably five galleries that I go to all the time. I think that’s what’s going on because that’s what I’m seeing. Then someone mentions something to you, you look to the side from there, and it’s just this amazing breadth of things going on.

It’s also really exciting that people are coming out of Chicago and saying they’re from Chicago, like Rashid Johnson. He’s doing really well and his work is fantastic. I feel pride about that. There are a lot of really great artists here. They also tend to be pretty generous with other artists because it’s not as expensive to live here as New York. It’s also not that pressure to make that amount of money to support yourself as an artist. People are much more generous with their time. They’ll say, “Did you hear about this or that?” and it’s like, “Oh I didn’t hear about that. I should apply for that. Thanks for telling me. That’s awesome.” People are really trying not to just squeeze out something for themselves. They want the whole scene to do well. They’re generous with trying to make connections for people both professionally and with materials.

DJ: What advice do you have for emerging artists?

SS: Work in your studio! Really work in your studio! While it’s important to go to openings and have a community of artists you can talk with—if you’re not making work, then you don’t have anything to show. Don’t overcompensate on networking. You need to keep making work so that your ideas are not just in your head, instead they’re manifesting themselves. Do it for yourself to look at and decide that’s not what you’re interested in doing. You may have discovered this other way of doing something that you didn’t know before, which is something that you would’ve never found out if you weren’t working.

DM: I’ll say hang on to some of the important relationships you had in art school. Stay in touch with those people who seem to have an affinity for your work and can talk to you in a way that’s helpful. People won’t talk to you about your work, if they have no history about your work. That’s something really important to foster because if you have a show somewhere you’re lucky if anyone says anything other than, “Hey, nice show.” You need to have your fiercest critics as long as they’re friendly and not abusive. They can be your best assets.

Miller & Shellabarger, Detail of veils at "Hiding in the Light" exhibition.Institute of Visual Art, Milwaukee, WI. Image Courtesy of Western Exhibitions

DJ: What are some new things you’re working on or older pieces you’re expanding on?

DM: Well, we recently started working on two new artists’ books. One that is sort of based on the Graves piece and another one that’s more based on the different kinds of silhouettes we’ve done. We’ve been talking about doing a performance where we would be hanging from ropes trying to hold each other. We would hold that embrace until we couldn’t anymore.  We would keep repeating that until it’s no longer possible. I kind of want to make a video.

SS:  That’s just technically a little daunting. It’s just trying to figure out how to put it together, so that it’s even close to what you have in your head. The show at Inova in Milwaukee has a lot of new work—a lot of gunpowder drawings and a lot of new paper garlands.

DM: We’re calling them veils and they’re a single row of paper dolls of us in pose; stretched out horizontally. The veil is folded twice, so it flips back and forth. It’s like a big curtain with the pose repeated over and over again.

SS: So instead of just going from left to right, it begins to flow downward. That whole pose becomes this curtain. Since we’ve only made two of them that’s something that we would like to experiment with a lot more.

Check out a video of Miller & Shellabarger’s Sewn Together and Seed Drawing Performance

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1 Response to " Exploring Human Relationships: A Dialogue with Miller & Shellabarger, Pt. 2 "

  1. spudart says:

    woot! shoutout to Felix Gonzalez-Torres! 🙂

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