Chicago

Dutes Miller, Fuck Me, 2021, acrylic paint, collage, and copper leaf on panel, 12 × 12".

Dutes Miller, Fuck Me, 2021, acrylic paint, collage, and copper leaf on panel, 12 × 12".

Dutes Miller

Dutes Miller’s presentation at Western Exhibitions indulged in copious amounts of found and altered gay pornography. The first line of the show’s press release stated that the artist “celebrate[s] queer-sex positivity as a form of resistance to the dominant culture.” This is a laudable position, but it’s funny to consider in relation to queer theorist Leo Bersani’s famous claim: “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.” Irrespective of this assertion, Miller loves sex and guilelessly proffers it as an unequivocal good. This attitude is unabashedly illustrated in the twelve handsomely framed works on paper from the series “Le Toucher 1–12 (To Touch, 1–12),” 2021, which graced the gallery’s east entrance wall. Each piece featured a vintage black-and-white picture of a handsome beefcake fondling his engorged cock. Miller enhances his men with gold leaf, spatially flattening out selected parts of the photograph via this gilding treatment. While this series evokes Italo-Byzantine icon painting, it lacks the form’s symbolic, visionary punch. Miller’s gilding changes from image to image, emphasizing the capriciousness of the artist’s hand. But the gold is distracting and seems oddly superficial, ultimately making the work appear more ordinary than extraordinary.

The six small panel paintings lining the gallery’s north wall doubled down on Miller’s ostensibly arbitrary handling of erotic content and form. While all of these works integrated a hard-core printed-collage element, the cutouts seemed neutered, providing the images with a kind of pictorial consistency, but not much else. For example, Suck It, 2019, features a clumsy depiction of a limber young man (whose enormous penis was snipped from a magazine) readying himself for some autofellatio. Miller’s style of execution calls to mind the figurative paintings of Chicagoan Celeste Rapone, whose art, in turn, conjures early works by Nicole Eisenman. But his unwitting homage—and the work’s slapdash facture—renders what could be a provocative image into something remarkably pat and overfamiliar. Fuck Me, 2021, however, is more successful. Here, Miller collaged three male couples having sex into a fiery metallic landscape comprised of frenetic brushstrokes and a copper-leaf ground (the title is scrawled into the piece’s surface). The shifting scale of the figures creates a sophisticated spatiality that activates the composition, giving this kinky tableau a variety of hellish depths.

In the middle of the show sat Fragment (from the altar of the pleasure Doud), 2021, a crude waist-high sculpture crafted from foam insulation. Its entire surface is layered with goopy plaster, gesso, and acrylic paint drips and is punctuated by three wide glory holes rimmed with dark-red paint. The openings, decorated with foam globules coated in copper leaf and nail-effect powder, resemble glittering drops of ejaculate. Nearby was Portals extending from either end can touch the event horizon, 2021, a trophy wall of brightly colored, abstracted dicks and orifices. Each piece is uniquely embellished: One maroon-colored maw is festooned with a row of incisors, while another sports fake hair and a dangling fluid-filled condom. Others are outfitted with antlers or collaged with gay porn. Yet the most intriguing aspect of this gaudy menagerie was the fact that many of the works were built from plastic food containers. This transformation of a commonplace item into an uncommon art object made me think of Miller’s collaborations with his husband, artist Stan Shellabarger, with whom he’s worked for nearly thirty years. The things they’ve created together—via performance, sculpture, photography, and printmaking—take on the sundry aspects that shape the couple’s day-to-day existence . . . including sex. Their oftentimes tender, funny, and poignant output makes Miller’s dive into carnal hedonism here utterly exasperating. When Miller and Shellabarger explore the dynamics of sex as a regular facet of life within a long-term relationship, the effect is powerful, faithfully illustrating that the personal truly is political.