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Tim Miller's deeply personal performance reveals universal themes.

By Margaret Regan

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  BACK IN HIGH school in Southern California's white-bread suburbia, Tim Miller was one of those hapless kids inevitably chosen last for the P.E. teams. Worse, he had a coach who made half the boys strip naked to the waist, the more easily to divide them into two teams, "shirts" and "skins."

Say what you will about the erotic/submissive dimensions of this all-American ritual--and Miller has plenty to say, most notably that it provided "maximum humiliation to the flabby, the feeble and the homosexual"--it benefited the incipient "queer lefty" performance artist in at least one way. Closely huddled in a group a half-naked jocks, he realized once and for all that he was gay.

"I knew," he says in his riveting performance piece Shirts and Skin at Centennial Hall, "I'd always be on the skin team, where the boys took their shirts off and stood close. I was in the skins for life."

The way Miller tells the story is typical of all the anecdotes in his laugh-out-loud-but-moving performance piece. That high-school moment of revelation is joyful, even comical, but it's colored by Miller's knowledge of straight America's routine contempt for gays. (In his P.E. nakedness he always prayed, "Please, God, nobody call me a faggot.") What's so disarming about Miller, though, in spite of the travails exacted on those who are different, is his unabashed delight in his sexuality.

In his performance art, he's about as out as a person can be, doing one piece entirely in the nude, and traveling through the most intimate dimensions of his psyche in all of them. Miller is a maniacally gifted storyteller who needs only his words and his dancer's body to unfurl stories whose subject is only ostensibly himself. Like feminist artists, he knows that the personal is the political. Continuing the shirts/skins metaphor throughout, Miller takes a cue from feminist artists who trade in domestic objects, hanging an emblematic shirt on a clothesline at the beginning of each story. (Those clothespins later come in handy in the sex scene.)

The four separate pieces in this show are chronologically arranged, moving from Miller's upbringing in a typically caring/crazy family (he begins with a wild account of his father's sperm careening toward his mother's egg, ricocheting past gay bashers trying to halt the assignation) to his first horny forays into San Francisco, where in his innocence he mistakes the Moonies for a Marxist collective. He goes on to a tale of his classic young-artist-struggles in New York's East Village, structured around his frantic quest both for a cheap apartment and a cute guy, and on to the final piece about sex, which he performs in the nude, if you except his black high-tops and red socks.

Like all his work, the sex piece is hilarious and tender and self-deprecating at the same time. Thrusting his naked hips like a man in full rut, he delivers a startling stream-of-conscious monologue detailing his thoughts during sex, from his desire to pull off his condom and impregnate his lover with a "queer baby who will lead our people to freedom," to a mood-breaking vision of Mom with her hands covered with hamburger helper, scolding him for depriving her of grandchildren.

The raw sexuality of the nude pieces is what gave Jesse Helms, the North Carolina senator, the ammunition to accuse Miller and the others in the "NEA Four" of filth. (The Four, including Miller and fellow performance artist Karen Finley, sued the government on First Amendment grounds, arguing that their NEA grants were unlawfully denied because of objections to the views they expressed in their work.) But there's something far more subversive in Miller's work than his nudity or his enactments of sexual acts, daring as they are. It's the unswerving conviction at the heart of his art that he has a right to be who he is: a gay man.

In his poetic writing, always laced with high comedy, Miller unapologetically delineates the gay experience, meshing his eternal search for a boyfriend into the politics of oppression. He effectively sets his own life within an historic context; now 39 years old, his own journey has included the triumph and murder of Harvey Milk, as well as the slowly dawning realization that the new "gay cancer" would change freewheeling sexuality forever. He grounds everything he talks about in the particularities of his own life, vividly evoking the life-changing kindness of a single high-school teacher, a lesbian Chicana by the name of Fraulein Rodriguez, and recounting the bittersweet story of his friend Martin, who escaped from a violent Lower East Side apartment nicknamed the Jaws of Death only to be torn apart and swallowed up by AIDS.

It's not surprising that gay audiences cherish this work, giving them as it does the rare opportunity to see their own lives authentically enacted in art. But Miller trades in universal truths, and his art has an endearing sweetness that speaks to anybody who's ever grown up in America and tried to find a way to a full life and love.

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