The COVID-19 pandemic forced most of us to grapple with intense feelings—from grief, love, loss, loneliness and isolation to gratitude and connection. You can explore many of those themes at Loving Repeating, a new art installation at Hyde Park Art Center from married longtime collaborators Dutes Miller and Stan Shellabarger that will have its grand opening April 23.
The exhibit, which derives its name from Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, is an immersive mixed-media installation which addresses the presence and absence of human touch during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shellabarger says this new work is a continuation of their previous collaboration—the use of their signature style of silhouettes of each other’s bodies, the presence and absence of the body and the repetition of everyday activities over time.
“The touch of your lover or your family or your friends on your shoulder is so reassuring,” Miller says. “It’s taken for granted and then it’s not there.”
Much of Miller and Shellabarger’s work together over the past 25 years centers on connections, loneliness and loss felt throughout relationship over time, all themes the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief for many people. In the ongoing Untitled (Crochet), which the artists have been working on since 2005, Miller and Shellabarger sit for hours crocheting at either end of an ever-growing pink tube, a cord that incrementally separates the couple as it tethers them together.
Shellabarger says the COVID-19 pandemic changed the artists’ solo practices more than their collaborative artistic practice—after decades creating together, he says the two have a very easy collaboration, saying they are “promiscuous” about never saying no to the other’s ideas—but if one person doesn’t feel strongly about or understand an idea, it will get put on hold for further discussion.
“We often take walks together and talk about our work and what’s going on in our everyday life, and those get intertwined,” Miller says. “The resulting artwork becomes physical manifestations of these really long conversations we’ve been having over the course of our time together.”
In addition to a 55-foot cut-paper garland, the installation features a 20-foot by 80-foot hand-painted mural, which will occupy an entire wall of the gallery, marking the first time the artists have created a painted mural. And this isn’t the only medium that’s new for Miller and Shellabarger—they also collaborated with Canadian video artist Steve Reinke to create a multi-channel video projection.
“It’s been fun to try to push the materials as far as we could,” Shellabarger says.
There will also be performance and interactive programs over the course of the exhibition, including multiple durational performances of Untitled (Crochet). On Saturday, April 23 at the Center’s Open Arts day and Sunday, July 10 at the Hyde Park Farmers Market, guests can join Miller and Shellabarger to make paper cranes for their installation, Burnt. On Saturday, July 16 from 4-6pm, the Center will host Miller and Shellabarger, along with fellow artist couples Candace Hunter and Arthur Wright, and J. Kent and Andrew Bearnot, for light bites, drinks and conversation about “what it means to live, work and love together.”
At the conclusion of the exhibition in September, Miller and Shellabarger will hold a bonfire to burn the paper chain and cranes, and the ashes will be placed in a pine box as part of their ongoing piece, Burnt. The papercraft from two other exhibitions (one in Baltimore and one in Chicago) have already been burnt and stored in a similar fashion, and those pine boxes will be on display as part of Loving Repeating. Even the mural and the video will not appear in the same way again.
“It reinforces the idea of mortality, this artwork that’s supposed to be archival or monumental or saved for the future is just as temporary as our bodies,” Miller says.
The bonfire creates a pull between celebration of the culmination of the work and the community, and the sense of mourning. “It’s not sad that the work is gone, but just us knowing, as we get older, more people that we know die,” Miller says. “It’s this reminder of all the things that are to come and all the things that have passed that need to be mourned, and then the event becomes fun again.”
Miller and Shellabarger hope people who attend the exhibition begin to understand and appreciate the small moments of their lives, and the importance of their relationships to other humans in making meaning out of life.
“Maybe you’re celebrating a birthday, or going on vacation, or you went to go see a show, or a friend’s wedding,” Shellabarger says. “There’s a lot that happens in between those moments, and that takes up a lot of your life, and I hope people pay attention to that.”
Loving Repeating will be on display through September 3 at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Visit the center’s calendar for a complete schedule of programs relating to Miller and Shellabarger’s work.