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Portrait of the Artist: Dutes Miller

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Dutes Miller could pass for a young AA Bronson. If you’ve met either, you know I’m not just talking about their beards—although at face value their look-alike beards, cascading and unfettered, bespeak a similar naturalness and charm. Bronson helped found General Idea but disbanded the group after its two other members died of AIDS fifteen years ago. During its run, General Idea gave a public face to the then-taboo gay lifestyle. Now, forty years after Stonewall, and after increased assimilation, what is the most beneficial image for the gay art movement?

The beard, worn like a badge, persists. Yes, it may be just a fashion, but it also signifies solidarity and self-made freedom. Ever image-conscious, gays who sport a beard of a certain length knowingly join a rank. A beard seems to say: my body is unconstrained, and my inhibitions are not secret. For his first solo exhibition in Chicago, Dutes Miller presents forthright and honest images of the body—the gay man’s body—from beard to balls. Miller’s husband and sometimes collaborator Stan Shellabarger (they had an exhibition together in 2007) also makes body-centric art, often in ritualistic endurance performances. Together, they make dual-portrait keepsakes, and in Basel they dug two graves joined by an underground tunnel through which they held hands. Such bittersweet gestures straightforwardly engage Bronson’s art practice—the way he tempers things with preemptive morning, his flair for banal male nudity, often combining political and emotional pitches. In fact, Bronson had an exhibition of his late work in 2001 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in Chicago, just as Miller and Shellabarger were settling into their new home in the city.

Miller’s solo exhibition is a bit different than the collaborative efforts with his husband. For one thing, he uses paint (Shellabarger doesn’t), and his themes are hardcore gay rather than domestic. Miller admits there’s a good amount of “decorum” in his collaborative art, but the current show is laced with glossy porn, shit smears, a meat hook—dangerous sort of imagery, but real. “Sex is messy,” says Dutes. This is more Bruce LaBruce than AA Bronson, although if it weren’t for either trailblazer, would Miller be as candid as he is in this show? The images are celebratory: a cock is the body of a muscled wrestler, arms pumping in triumph; paint flows expressively like an ejaculation; there’s a pulpit in the middle of the gallery; one picture, titled “Smell It,” features a bouquet of anal flowers.

Thirty-six collages made from porn are hung in a grid on one gallery wall. The cut-up technique, like a good Picasso nude from his surrealist phase, over-saturates the bodies with sex. Assholes, like flying discs, populate one scene. Another compounds flesh on flesh, hair on hair, cocks on faces. One guy is remade to sport four dicks, but Miller also deforms his face, giving the fantasy a dark twist. Appropriating porn into one’s art may just be a way of prolonging masturbation. Miller’s gay scrap-booking technique is shared by another Western Exhibitions gallery artist, John Parot. Both ask viewers to see desire as distinct from shame. (Jason Foumberg)

Dutes Miller shows at Western Exhibitions, 119 N. Peoria, through August 1.

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