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DETROIT — Intimacy is often falsely billed as romantic. While romance has a tendency to smooth the rough edges of reality, leaving everything with a mystic sheen of beauty, intimacy, by contrast, brings you so close to another being that you start to see past their pretenses, their best efforts, their shiny exterior. Intimacy is bodily, in ways that are sexy and ways that are definitely not sexy.
Conceptual artists Nicola Kuperus and Adam Lee Miller know a thing or two about intimacy. They have been married for 17 years, and working together for nearly 20, via their band ADULT., and as visual artists who are forced to collaborate by sheer proximity, though their interests are mutual. Discreet Vulgarities, at the Simone DeSousa Gallery, might be seen as a two-person show — or it might be seen as two variations on a common theme that has been developing within this unified pair. Like a true married couple, Kuperus and Miller work by finishing each other’s thoughts — both conversationally and artistically — resulting in two bodies of work that are quite individuated in some ways, and overlapping in others.
The easiest differentiator is medium. Miller is a fine art painter; Kuperus works with photography, particularly to capture moments within open-ended performances, and makes interactive sculpture (which essentially forces viewers to assume poses and positions very much like those she adopts in her performance pieces). If you are looking at conceptual self-portraiture, appropriated trappings of distant Victoriana (gloves, calling cards on a silver tray) — that’s Kuperus. If you are looking at strongly formalist paintings that feature bright industrial colors and depict building materials like two-by-fours and PVC pipes — that’s Miller. On the surface, it’s easy to distinguish between the works of the individual artists, but taken as a whole, the show contains such strong thematic throughlines that distinctions become more complicated. Kuperus’s sculptural works are fabricated exquisitely from refinished plywood, and deeper contemplation of Miller’s paintings reveals lowbrow humor packaged within high art references — a kind of Victorian preoccupation with maintaining a pristine veneer that belies the underlying messy, drippy, and sexual realities of human existence.
These messy realities are the driving concept for Discreet Vulgarities. Within Miller’s paintings, pipes, joined in an ouroboros feedback, loop drip at their joints. A photographic diptych of two gloved hands (gloves are a recurring motif throughout the show) depicts each hand alternately using its ring finger to penetrate an opening along the wrist of its partner’s glove. Miller’s two-by-four subjects (winkingly stamped as “studs”) plunge through painted portholes, in a basic and frankly acknowledged implication of penetrative sex. The titular discretion applied to these vulgarities is thin; there are double and triple innuendos at work all over the twin galleries. And yet, a third-grader walking through the exhibit would likely miss every single adult theme — except perhaps the sound sculpture “Shithole(s),” which features recordings of Kuperus and Miller saying “Shh” and “it” emitting from two different holes in a chest-high plywood structure.
Beneath the deeply conceptual and technical structures of Kuperus and Miller’s works, there is a kind of playful appeal to the lowest common denominator — curse words, sexual innuendo, and building supplies are all equal-opportunity subjects which a lot of people can relate to. An articulation of the double-edged nature of intimacy, Discreet Vulgarities distills a long and inspired conversation between artists, imbued with a kind of “that’s what s/he said” humor that keeps this couple a good-natured arm’s length from pretentiousness. Ultimately, this fun and funny show captures a moment of intensifying intimacy, two artists and married people taking steps to move further inside each other, and reflect the seriousness, humor, beauty, and banality of their peculiar union.
Discreet Vulgarities continues at the Simone DeSousa Gallery (444 W. Willis, #112, Detroit) through October 10.