Dana Schutz packs evocative and unexpected narratives into confined spaces, but not all of them fit as well as she thinks they do.
By Aimee Cotnoir
During an interview in the New York Times Style Magazine, when asked why she paints what she paints, Dana Schutz lackadaisically replied, “I wanted to see if I could.” Her reply might be seen as flippant, but it could also be a sign of her fierce bravado. Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, on view at this year’s Whitney Biennial, could fit either perspective — it sparked plenty of controversy and protest.
The picture was based on a photograph of a teenager in his open coffin. The adolescent had been lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. The image served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement after it had been published in Jet magazine at the insistence of the teen’s mother. Schutz made a fateful decision as an artist when she chose to appropriate that violent and influential photo into her painting — she was testing contemporary political limits. Despite the hype and hoopla, her career took a hit, given the passion of her detractors. Still, many critics consider her one of the foremost painters of our time and, in spite of a letter of protest to the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ curator, Eva Respini, the museum is exhibiting a show made up of Schutz’s work (through November 26).
Born in 1976 in Livonia, a suburb of Detroit, Dana Schutz lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Her studio space is infamously messy, falling just short of the fertile trash heap that surrounded Francis Bacon. During her school years, Schutz was inspired by ‘painterly’ painters, such as Cecily Brown, Nicole Eisenman, and Laura Owens. She also studied the more critical approaches of such artists as David Salle and Julian Schnabel. She received her BFA from The Cleveland Art Institute, participated in Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture residency program, and then earned her MFA at Columbia in 2002. Her rise to fame was swift. She is one of the few artists, let alone a woman, who, by the time she turned 40, had her work collected by all four of New York’s major museums. Her distinctive method of painting makes use of ‘humorously’ primitive figuration and a clamorously vibrant color palette. The bold gestures in her paint meld the figurative and the abstract.
The current exhibition at the ICA gathers together works from over the last decade. Besides a framed series of four uniformly sized, dense charcoal drawings, the exhibition falls into two categories: contemporary personal narrative paintings and those that reference the Western tradition of history painting. Her efforts on the latter front are defiant challenges to the genre’s conventions. These gigantic, Cubist-inspired, fragmented pictures certainly get your attention. Yet, once you get over the initial shock of their size, they are not all successful.
Building the Boat While Sailing references a number of admired history paintings, such as Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, and Theodore Géricault’s The Raft of Medusa, 1818 -1819. Géricault’s masterful picture, an icon of French Romanticism, was the result of extensive sketching and research, the later including visits to the morgue to observe the hue and tone of the skin of those who were dying. History painting, popular throughout the 18th century and into the 19th, has been regarded as the highest and most difficult form of Western painting, occupying a prestigious place in the hierarchy of genres. In 1436’s De Pictura, Leon Battista Alberti claims multi-figure history painting has the most potential to move the viewer — because the form shows history in action.
It is this tradition that Schutz appears to be simultaneously paying homage to and critiquing. She explains that “making a large painting could feel like you are building a boat.” In Building the Boat While Sailing, the picture’s cartoonish figures collide hectically into each other, to the point that the bustle of confusion fights with the limits of the canvas. In this upheaval (inspired by The Raft of the Medusa), one figure mindlessly hammers in the middle of the raft, one stares blankly at two nailed-up boards, and another wretches over the side. Several people have fallen overboard. There’s a contrast between an intense, reddish orange sky and a deep blue foreboding sea. The figures are muted and sickly in tone – their eyes sink into their overworked — yellowed or muddled — pastel visages. The contrast between the visual appeal of Schutz’s work and Gericault’s is profound. In creating this painting, she gives off the impression of working in a mad rush, as if trying to save her endeavor from exploding. In doing so, she seems to comment, with satiric intent, on painting’s ability to convey a coherent narrative in an age of photography and cinema.
2015’s Shaking Out the Bed is nearly 18 feet wide and contains a colorfully fragmented image of daily life; a couple missed hearing the alarm clock and is frantically getting out of bed. In this massive work, as in Building the Boat, Schutz doesn’t make use of a lot of paint and seems to be drawing via frenetic strokes. Once again, the composition pushes against its frame; Schutz is always testing the limits of deviating from the rulebook. The action flies off of the canvas in all directions – a large and bulbous pink foot; a piece of pizza sits among the covers; a hammer on the night stand begs the viewer to reach in and break the fourth wall; an oversized, rolled-up newspaper is the same size as both of the human figures combined. This very personal work does not have the narrative resonance of Building the Boat. Its chosen theme is the elevation of the banal into the heroic. The distortion is bold, but here the oddball clutter comes off as small scale (despite the size of the canvas), and eccentric.
A smaller and more intimate painting, 2009’s Swimming, Smoking, Crying presents another intensely personal scenario. The work reads as a surreal visualization of passages in the diary of a middle class adolescent white girl. Commenting on the work, Schutz recalls her experience as a swimmer in high school: “It is an interesting sport because you are kind of invisible. Your body is submerged in the water, yet you are constantly reminded of the rhythm of your breath, you are really in your own head space.” The clearly autobiographical subjective painting evokes no emotional response beyond the melancholic. Visually, however, there is considerable power: the thick and playful impasto of white clouds on a lavender sky as well as the painterly manner in which the submerged half of the girl’s face dissolves into the warm pool of water.
One of Schutz’s larger narrative works, 2016’s Big Wave, gives us the artist at her most brilliant, successfully accomplishing her ambitious aim of re-contextualizing history painting through abstraction. The work demands, and earns, a deep visceral response. The image is directed at the current political climate, particularly the state of our denial of global warming and recent natural disasters. A cresting wave, filled with toothy sea monsters and flailing bodies, fills the canvas. The wall of water is on the brink of crashing into the foreground, but two ethnically diverse children — who are playing in the sand, seemingly ignorant of the encroaching threat behind them — seem to be holding doom at bay. Big Wave suggests that Schutz took her time developing its composition. Her rich palette returns to the stunning tropical notes of her earlier works in 2002, which feature Frank, “the last man on earth.”
Big Wave doesn’t stand alone in its success. Several of her later paintings are also compelling, such as 2017’s To Have a Head, in which the paint is viscerally applied in lush exuberant swipes. It’s an image that explores, through metaphor, the enigmas and challenges of being an artist. This interest in self-examination is a theme to which she has often returned, starting with her earlier work, 2004’s Face Eater.
Overall, Schutz specializes in packing unexpected narratives into confined spaces. But not all of these stories fit as well as she thinks they do. Describing the characters in her paintings at the ICA, Schutz says that “they wrestle with their own garments, in the confines of their skin, the surface of the canvas, their environment and dynamic within a group — they fight for space, attention, territory, and time.” This energetic struggle is mirrored in her career as an artist — but when does turmoil serve a purpose and when does being combative become an end in itself?
Doing her studio work and writing in the evenings, Aimee Cotnoir earned her MFA at Lesley University in Cambridge. At the moment, she is organizing group shows in an effort to create a greater community among her fellow alums and emerging artists. She also exhibits her work, which combines the languages of cinema and painting.