Tim Miller

at Beacon Street Gallery, through June 12

I have little interest in gay art. This statement may seem like blasphemy coming from a gay artist, but I also have little interest in women’s art, or African American art, or the art of any other “subculture” per se. Membership in a certain group–especially one as broad and inclusive as gays, women, or African Americans–is no guarantee of intelligence, insight, or talent. Gay artists can be just as uninteresting as anyone else.

Before Queer Nation zaps my office’s fax machine or Babble spits out a nasty editorial on my betrayal of the gay community, I will of course acknowledge that artists working outside a white, Eurocentric, heterosexist tradition have historically been relegated to second-class status in our culture, when they’ve been acknowledged at all. The art world can only benefit from embracing diversity and questioning the standards it uses to evaluate art. Nonetheless we seem to be entering an era when being a particular type of person is a more important artistic prerequisite than having something of substance to say.

California performance artist Tim Miller has had much to say in the past. His last piece, My Queer Body, which Beacon Street Gallery presented a year ago, eloquently chronicled the challenges of growing up gay in America using a series of sophisticated and highly poetic metaphors. Yet in his new work, Naked Breath, he not only travels down well-trodden paths, but does so without the wit and craft that made My Queer Body a success.

Where My Queer Body focused on adolescence, Naked Breath focuses on young adulthood. Miller tells the story of his life–perhaps fictionalized, perhaps not–from age 19 on, focusing almost entirely on his sex life (brief asides about bad job situations serve mostly as transitional material). Every encounter, from a one-shot deal with a stained-glass installer to a long-term relationship with a lover, is recounted in nearly identical fashion: a lusty perusal, a nervous introduction, and then wild sexual abandon.

Miller’s writing is often clever and funny–he describes a past boyfriend as “Heathcliffe on East Houston.” But he tries to convince us that all of these couplings magically transcend the limitations of uptight, sex phobic, middle-class heterosexual America, that with each conjugal act the walls of fear and mistrust that normally separate people are heroically smashed and true intimacy develops. It’s as though he wants to believe that being gay automatically exempts men from the restrictions of the larger culture of which they are not only a part but a product.

Perhaps these adventures were profoundly moving in Miller’s life, but in performance they seem generic and interchangeable. He seems to have gained little from these relationships beyond an uncanny memory for who came on what part of whose body as well as a rather utopian and overly politicized view of mutual orgasm.

Of course Miller could argue, as have many self-identified queer thinkers, that in a culture as antigay and antisex as ours sex between men is always an act of heroism and celebration. Certainly passionate arguments can be made in support of this notion, but they require a lot of work. Miller simply takes these arguments as givens and then presents a series of unremarkable stories as proof of their validity, ultimately offering little to support his conclusion that “these are stories worth hearing,” and hearing over and over again.

Miller seems to want to find deeper truths in his material, but fails to dig below the surface. For example, he tells us with weighty self-importance that doorways can lead us from one part of our lives to the next, a belabored metaphor that’s often invoked when characters face important moments of transition. Even his characters are disappointingly superficial, especially considering how intriguing they’ve been in his previous work. A group of professional carpenters, for instance, seem stunned to realize that power tools can hurt them.

Finally Naked Breath feels quite academic, despite Miller’s repeated attempts to draw us into a communal circle of gay love. A room full of gay men with their arms around each other is greater than the sum of its parts, he tells us, without bothering to tell us why. It’s fine to say that being gay and actively sexual is good, but it’s not enough–especially when it’s been said ad nauseam for years. Miller essentially puts his sexuality before his artistry–the piece seems to say that nearly any gay experience is significant and stage-worthy–rather than letting these two parts of himself support and strengthen each other. Perhaps with this piece he can get enough out of his system to move on to more meaningful work.