The paintings of Dana Schutz are all decadence and destruction, wit and delivery; they expand and defy meaning, like water turned to ice in the crack of a stone. In this moment of political and social unrest, as we witness the removal of Occupy Wall Street, with its disturbing images of police and protestor conflict, global economic crises, and the new battle for presidential candidacy, the 35-year-old Brooklynite’s retrospective at the Neuberger Museum, If the Face Had Wheels, is fittingly timed. Yet what Schutz brings to the table is not a seriousness about our cultural milieu; rather, she uses humor and a loose, gestural painting style, often coupled with bizarre narratives, to point at our idiosyncrasies and dualities, contradictions and neuroses. With an ambiguously caustic brushstroke, she fingers our trigger points—and the effects are dazzling.
On ViewNeuberger Museum of Art
September 25 – December 18, 2011
The show features approximately 30 paintings and a handful of drawings in gouache, all completed over the course of the last decade, which is a sizeable collection of work for someone so young. Schutz, a graduate of Columbia University, first captivated the painting scene with her series Frank from Observation, which featured the artist’s muse, Frank—a benevolent, bleached hippie with long hair—as the last man on earth and posited the artist as his last observer. In a series of paintings from 2001, Frank wanders his hypothetical world, lackadaisically testing different poses from art history and various natural settings, from lush rain forests to the desert beaches of some Crusoe-ian paradise. In “Reclining Nude” (2002), Frank lounges like Titian’s Venus against a backdrop of yellowed sand and rock, his radioactively pink body seemingly generating a heat of its own. In another, Frank appears as a Proboscis monkey, his face distorted and shriveled as he dazingly grazes on the verdant plant life that surrounds him. Thickly applied swathes of color and a fleshly approach to the medium recalls other female painters working in the narrative tradition, such as Judith Linhares, whose hallucinatory palette is also a hallmark of Schutz’s painting style.
“The Breeders” (2002), loosely based on the artist’s interest in femme rock, and positioned opposite of the Frank paintings, features two U-shaped forms in fleshy pink, their curvilinear shapes abutting her two female protagonists. Lush pines in hot blues and electric greens, further amplified by the fading light of dusk, are carved out in thick impastoes as stems of instruments jut out at angles reminiscent of the trees that surround them. At the bottom right of the painting lies Frank’s head, severed and painted a cadaver-like gray. The painting reads, as most of Schutz’s pieces do, as a conflation of life, death, and art.
With her series The Self-Eaters from 2003, the artist’s thematic content grows considerably darker as cannibalistic acts of self-devourment take center stage. Here, the innocuous visage of Frank has been replaced with a string of grotesque and disfigured female portraits like those of the “Face Eater” (2004)—a macabre union of Francis Bacon and George Condo—and “The Devourer,” plastic, malleable hybrids who possess the ability to simultaneously destroy and regenerate themselves. In addition to these mythical characters, Schutz often turns the body inside out, cuts holes in her figures, or razes parts of their forms away in an abstracted vision of chaos and catastrophe. “Gouged Girl” (2008), for example, registers the painter’s sinister sense of humor as a half-eaten watermelon flanks the right side of a decimated, and again, female form. As the woman stares out at the placid sea in front of her, we notice that her hands are covered in a pinkish red, symptomatic of either the masticated fruit at her side or her auto-cannibalistic indulgence.
The anesthetized violence of Schutz’s characters—acts often inflicted upon themselves—is disquieting to say the least. According to the artist, however, her intention is not to dwell on the idea of aggression or pain. Rather, as she states in an interview with Helaine Posner, “I like precarious subjects, things that have physical matter or weight to them, and I think you can sense it more with extreme situations.” While Schutz is not interested in offering moral anecdotes per se, her methodology, in its groundless narratives and abstracted forms, offers a starting point for introspection—but that is all. She leads us into the thicket without an exit strategy. In doing so, she denotes the ultimate Socratic gesture, perhaps as a way of pointing to the fact that we alone are responsible for our suffering.
This idea spills over into cultural as well as individual critiques with some of her mid-career work. “The Autopsy of Michael Jackson” (2005), a 60-inch by 120-inch painting of the singer, nude, decaying, and lying prostrate on a metal slab in the morgue, in fact precedes the entertainer’s death by approximately four years. In a twist of masochistic wit, Schutz paints his trademark gloves and red military shirt, folded neatly, onto the chair beside him.
“Men’s Retreat,” also from that year, tackles similar cultural issues but with a more sardonic assessment of the self-help resurgence. Such futile attempts to get back to our “primal selves,” Schutz seems to say, are as nonsensical as they are laughable. To visualize the tale, she leads businessmen, blindfolded, into a thick wood, their appearance made all the more ridiculous by the drums and cymbals cast over their shoulders and loosened ties. In the foreground a new-age “healer” (a California hippie with glasses if I’ve ever seen one) paints war paint onto the face of another recall from the mustached, Caucasian contingent who sits, accepting of the action, in full lotus. In the background two sets of naked men ride piggy-back on each other—the whole image a campy throwback (or even more disturbingly, throw forward (?)) of the corporate retreat, with passages of sinister irony woven in.
But if “Men’s Retreat” and “The Autopsy of Michael Jackson,” marked by Schutz’s painterly style and fantastical subject matter (albeit always rooted in the context of the everyday), dissolve artistic and social boundaries, “Presentation” (2005) is her coup de grâce. It is also among Schutz’s largest paintings. Here, the artist’s sense of scale achieves the level of classical history painting and its imagery tackles just as weighty a subject matter—our morbid curiosity about death. In jaundiced, short brushstrokes of yellow and orange, a massive giant lays half-conscious on a slab of wood. A pit below signifies his proximity to death’s door. Around him are hundreds of onlookers, some of whom poke and prod at his open wounds while others simply stare, unflinchingly, at the horrific scene. The painting features the full range of human response to suffering—the way we pick ourselves apart, probe and dissect our pain—as if this was not a fact of life but rather, a symptom that we might be able to avoid.
Paradox and parody enter more dramatically into the work by 2009 as the paintings seem to become more flippant, and some of them, outright funny. The Verbs, for example, features Schutz’s clever use of language as a means of generating visual content. For this, the artist selected three verbs whose actions would be impossible for one to enact simultaneously. “Swimming, Smoking, Crying” is one result, as is “Shaking, Cooking, Peeing” (both 2009), a hilarious mixture of color and confusion waged amid the clutter of a female’s kitchen. Through fits of confetti-dappled paint and urine, the pitiable figure convulses and gyrates as she attempts to prepare a meal, her long brown hair occluding her face from view. She remains anonymous, indicative of each of our contemporaneous addictions to multitasking.
With the Verbs, Schutz humorously criticizes the unsustainability of such directives. We are growing weary, tired, taking on more and more at the risk of breakdown, she seems to say. Collectively, this group of paintings, along with her How I Would… and I’m into… series (the visual answers to which were primarily generated through Internet searches) signify the artist’s growing sense of hopelessness. The paradox, however, is that the work maintains its sense of humor. Schutz’s ability to laugh in the face of disaster, to make us chuckle, is her greatest strength. Humor deflates the notion of elevated ironic critique, bringing it back down to this world, to the everyday. Perhaps this is why her pieces are so affecting. They register with us on a gut level. They are not lofty, institutional treatises on some theoretical discourse in art history or some cleverly conceptual display of intellectual prowess. They are figurative paintings, direct, palpable, and of this moment. Their detachment from the real world is only detached in that they represent our own aimlessness and ambivalence.
Perhaps this is why the artist’s painting style can endure such formal shifts. Beginning with the acid washes and sculpturally impastoed effects of her early canvases and proceeding to the flattened, shortened brushstrokes and more restricted palette of works like “Singed Picnic” and “Man Eating Chicken” (both 2008), Schutz consistently recreates herself. This dynamism is as much a mark of contemporary selfhood as it is an analysis of the practice of painting. By embracing the dialectically warring and uncertain conditions of our present, by painting their instability and inconsistencies, Schutz leaves the future open, unknowable. This freedom from the known, her refusal to strong-arm a utopic outcome, is what makes her imagery so powerful. The work’s resistance is its strength.