Dana Schutz: Imagine Me and You
PETZEL GALLERY | JANUARY 10 – FEBRUARY 23, 2019
Dana Schutz apparently found the title for this splendid show in the Turtles’ 1967 saccharine hymn to togetherness of the same name. No one is likely to become enraged over this appropriation. But it reminds us of the absurdity entailed in the very idea of appropriation, that somehow subjects are the exclusive property of some artists but not others. Schutz is as free to quote from a mawkish love song as she is to paint whatever comes into her head. Of course, the idea of togetherness here is hilarious because none of us would like to be anywhere near the monsters that populate Schutz’s work.
But “me and you” may also refer to the fact that the show consists of paintings and sculpture—five bronze castings, Schutz’s first public foray in that medium. They accompany twelve oils, varying in size from 30 by 26 to 120 by 150, but that number is slightly deceptive because hanging in the gallery are two more paintings, technically hors de concours, that are nevertheless important. One is Schutz’s version of Moses delivering the Ten Commandments, the other a fiendishly ambiguous full-face portrait whose teeth provide a direct link between the paintings and the sculptures.
The Moses derives from traditional iconography. But unlike, say, Rembrandt, whose Moses is about to smack us with the Tables of the Law for worshipping the golden calf, Schutz’s Moses shields himself behind God's decrees. While she has affinities with myriad artists—Ensor, the German Expressionists, Manet, Peter Saul, De Kooning—Schutz only rarely tries her hand at reformulating art-historical topics like this. Which of course makes us wonder just what Moses is doing here. A law-giver, a leader, a prophet touched by God, and thanks to Romanticism, which attributed those traits to artists in general, he is gender-switched, a model for the woman artist of our time.
Schutz’s Painting in an Earthquake (2018) is a magnificent portrait of the female artist-prophet, working amid the clatter of a social dissonance whose only purpose is to disrupt her inspired relationship with her work by imposing restrictions on her, censoring her imagination. Schutz’s self-portrait perhaps, resolutely turns her back on the world outside the painting so she can focus her God-given energy on the task that matters most to her: making art. This important painting is a declaration of independence: Schutz will allow no one to dictate the terms of her artistic existence.
Schutz’s paintings are artistically edited nightmares, Nietzsche’s “artistic conquest of the horrible,” and her sculptures, three-dimensional quotations from that work. They add a nuance to her oeuvre and take it in an entirely new direction. We certainly see the symbiotic relationship between the two mediums in two works that share the same title, Washing Monsters. The painting shows an ambiguous human figure, vaguely like a harried mother trying to keep her kids under control, doggedly slogging ahead. Again, the artist at work, transforming personal visions that are also collective issues into paint on canvas. But the sculpture, also from 2018, is more chaotic: a true monster-fest whose protagonist would seem to be a daddy monster carrying off his progeny. In other words, the sculptural version enables Schutz to let her monsters run free—and into our reality. Here we see her link to Surrealism: it is not enough for her simply to paint her unrealities. Now she imposes them on the world. We cannot walk away from them because now they live among us.
Schutz’s experiments with sculpture mark a quantum leap in her artistic production. A paradoxical turn, because in addition to frightening us with their monstrousness, her bronzes constitute a new chapter in the history of the grotesque, with its combination of fear and dark humor. This element is not apparent in her painting. Head in the Wind, a small 22 by 14 by 22 piece from 2018, is literally a humanoid head enjoying a breeze so strong it sends the figure's hair flying. But is that a smile, or is this gremlin about to bite us? Dana Schutz’s painting is a constant duel with chaos: Her sculpture puts chaos in our lives.
ContributorAlfred Mac Adam
ALFRED MAC ADAM is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He has translated works by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, José Donoso, and Jorge Volpi, among others. He recently published an essay on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa included in The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.