The first thing to know about Miller & Shellabarger is that the photographs the viewer observes on the walls of the gallery are not all simply photographic records of performance, but that some of them were conceived as photographs from the outset. Therefore, this is not simply a retrospective of documentation, but also of performance for the camera, with the camera being the key witness. Miller and Shellabarger, who are married, compose performances together, perform them together, and capture them together, often in locations that are meaningful to them as a couple.
This exhibition contains four pieces from the ”Untitled (pink tube)” series, an ongoing nontheatrical performance in which the artists have crocheted at the opposing ends of a long tube of pink yarn publicly since 2003 in venues that hold meaning for them. For example, there is a photograph from Palmer Square Park in Chicago in the tree underneath which the couple was married. In “Origami Cranes,” which was a public performance in the window of a futon store, the pair folded origami cranes for eight hours a day on three consecutive Saturdays. The show also contains several images from “Untitled (Grave),” one from Portland, Oregon, and one from Basel, Switzerland, in which the pair dug two close, parallel graves, each large enough for one of them to lie in. Once lying in the holes, they tunneled between the two through which they could hold one another’s hands.
In the spirit of a retrospective, there are small samplings from multiple series. There is a small series of lovely tintypes in which the artists embrace and pose much as heterosexual couples did in early tintype and Daguerreotype photography, openly declaring their relationship. There are photo-based, handstitched artist books, also from a performance piece, and a series of light paintings, “Spooky Distant Action,” in which images of each artist twirling with sparklers are layered one on the other, creating wild whirling vortexes of light. Several images have been created from the couple’s intertwined initials laid against objects in their Oak Park home, declaring “we live here, this is ours.”
Of most interest to me was the “Seed” series in which the pair outlined one another’s bodies lying on the ground, one on top of the other, with sunflower seeds, creating something resembling police-crime-scene chalk drawings. One of these has been made on the sidewalk, one on the grass, as if two bodies fell in the same space. The third, and most fascinating, was made by filling the spaces created by the bodies in the snow completely with seeds. In this one, the two “bodies” do not touch, but one appears to reach for the other. The implications of seeds bear contemplation.
The most important takeaway from this exhibition is a sense of complete trust, total creative collaboration, and mutual love and respect, both in life and in art. Two artists, who could, and do, create independently, have chosen to create this remarkable work together.
Miller & Shellabarger at (northern) Western Exhibitions, 7933 North Lincoln Avenue, Skokie, through May 6