PRINT April 2004


AS A PAINTER WHO IS ADVANCING ON THE SHEER FORCE OF ECSTATIC IMAGINATION, ideation, and subjective color, Dana Schutz just might be our finest contemporary symbolist. In the simplest terms, Schutz gives form to things that do not exist outside of art, and her paintings would seem to avail themselves of the artist’s right—so eloquently articulated in Gabriel-Albert Aurier’s celebrated 1891 essay “Symbolism in Painting: Paul Gauguin”—to exaggerate, attenuate, or deform an object’s qualities not merely in furtherance of his individual vision but in service of the “needs of the Idea to be expressed.” (As it happens, Schutz has been looking closely at some of the very artists Aurier praised, Gauguin and van Gogh in particular.) Since she emerged on the scene in 2002, a few months before Columbia’s School of Fine Arts awarded her an MFA, Schutz has been showing weird, seemingly improbable, gutsy paintings—a starry-eyed seer, a fifty-foot-tall rock star, the last man on earth—each canvas releasing a flood of associations and fantastical possibilities, the way a Moreau or a Redon might.

The Last Man on Earth was the subject of most of the dozen paintings in “Frank from Observation,” her 2002 New York solo debut, at LFL Gallery. The title came from the male “character” Schutz concocted as a narrative jumping-off point. She imagined herself as the last artist and Frank as the last man—and therefore the last audience. With no one else to answer to, the painter is permitted to invent her own reality for her subject. Naked, skin sunburned to an almost purple hue, Frank is shown alone on the beach by day and beneath the stars at night, or as a proboscis monkey, clutching the branch of a succulent jungle plant. When Frank is not in the pictures, what we see are probably his hallucinatory daydreams, perhaps caused by severe dehydration and boredom. One of these is Slugs, 2002, in which a large, rolling pile of the unshelled crawlers is rendered in thick strokes of mustardy browns, red-streaked yellows, and muddy blues all against a fiery sky. Frank and Dana’s imaginary world is a temporary fiction, and like Gauguin at the thoroughly unromantic end of his Tahitian fantasy, Frank is done in by paradise (one work, from 2002, is called Suicide, and in The Gathering, 2002, it looks as if Frank has been disemboweled).

Along with a good deal of praise and recognition, “Frank from Observation” elicited a fair amount of head scratching among critics. Stylistic predecessors are easy enough to identify, whether intended by Schutz or not: Matisse’s colors, Krasner’s banana-leaf shapes, Guston’s unpretty figures and forms. “Frank” also spawned a grab bag of labels, including “‘bad’ painting!”and “folk art redux!” the latter of which the artist finds particularly annoying. To cast about for an anchoring point is understandable, for even when Schutz’s paintings depict figures in landscapes and stuff we might recognize, they don’t usually allow for an easy reading (it took a press release written by the artist to guide us through Frank’s narrative). Some works suggest musical themes. E.S.G., 2003, shows a stage crowded with a giant drum, possibly some mike stands, three disco balls (because one disco ball didn’t seem like enough, Schutz told me), and God knows what else. No less oblique is Chris’ Rubber Soul, 2001, which depicts, outdoors in high grass, a record on a turntable with some kind of crab-shell form balanced on top—a construction possible only in painting. The ordinary becomes totemic again in Twister, 2003, where the Hasbro game’s vinyl mat has been left out to bake under a scorching-hot sun with a chicken bone, a skull, a few palm fronds, and something that looks really gross, like a blackening animal carcass.

Such representational liberties and her audacious colors—hot melon, egg-yolk yellow, shades of purple both putrid and lovely, true reds, neon pinks—driven by a lavish imagination and a cultivation of the symbolic, place Schutz’s work into what I’ll call “figural burlesque.” This “genre” of painting might include, among other work, the mannered distortions of John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage; the oblique, photo-based compositions of Magnus von Plessen; Brian Calvin’s flatly painted, long-faced slackers; or even the lushly painted and downright strange mythic pastorals of Vladimir Dubossarsky and Aleksandr Vinogradov. These artists select and synthesize differently from a vast pool of stylistic references that includes the Old Masters, socialist realism, social portraiture, modernist literature, and Penthouse, but they seem connected by subjectivist tendencies as well as their patently reflexive deployment of the conventions of representation and portraiture. Adjectives like “ugly,” “bad,” and “difficult” could be (or have been) applied to nearly all of them for indulging in Aurier’s extolled aesthetic virtues of exaggeration and attenuation, and like Schutz, all of these painters elbow their way into the discourse by the potency of their work.

There is no stillness to Schutz’s pictures: Paint and gestures are always moving, and the surfaces vibrate. Some canvases are big and ecstatic, like Lovers, 2003, which was shown in the Venice Biennale last summer, and a brand-new work called Run, 2003–2004, which captures the instant in which a procession of swiftly moving figures in a verdant setting comes to an abrupt halt. Everything is an imprecise but forceful jumble—kind of the way things look when you’re mid-wipeout, about to hit the ground. The girl in the lead seems to have smacked right into a tree. Or is she embracing it? Regardless, she causes a five-girl pileup of long hair, gangly limbs, and bright clothing, which converge in a heady formal crash. The pinkish sole of a foot blares out of the center of the picture like an anguished appendage from Guernica.

I saw Run in Schutz’s windowless studio uptown, near Columbia, as she was applying the finishing touches before sending the canvas off to an exhibition at her Boston gallery. But she wasn’t sure she was really done with the picture. That moment of doubt may have come because Schutz had put the work aside for nearly a year before returning to it, and she’d started following different threads in the meantime, like consumption, cannibalism, and eventual renewal. In Feelings, 2003, a girl greedily brings a whopping portion of squishy paint up to her wide-open mouth. Squeezed directly from the tube, the paint was built up on the canvas with an extravagance not at all unusual for this artist. The surfaces of her works often approach sculptural dimensions, and indeed, Schutz describes painting as a form of building. Sculpture and constructed objects are familiar figures in her compositions. In Night Sculpting, 2001, an art classroom, desks and all, is displaced to an open meadow, where works in progress sit on tabletops illuminated by ordinary black desk lamps. Sometimes figures wear almost sculptural costumes, like the carnivalesque bird headdress in Death Comes to Us All and the reptilian disguises that mask the couple embracing in Console, both 2003.

Another group of works explores construction via destruction by way of self-love so intense that the lovers cannot help but consume their own flesh. “I’ve been making things a bit darker lately,” Schutz explained of “Self Eaters and the People Who Love Them,” her exhibition at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris this winter. Although the artist sometimes tries to veil the harsher side of her sensibility beneath a rainbow of hues, her unruliness can still show through. Her early portraits, like all caricatures, have a touch of cruel humor: Sneeze, 2001, for instance, captures a piggy-nosed girl in the (involuntary) act. The cannibalism of the self-eaters is a metaphor for creation through destruction and regeneration: In Self Eater #1, 2003, a woman is eating her legs. In New Legs, 2003, a woman ruefully refashions her missing limbs from stone and her own gray shit. Schutz has an idea now that she wants to make abstracted renderings of plastic-surgery procedures, in which, one imagines, she will continue exploring the primitive fantasy of molding new limbs out of one’s own shit and flesh and guts. Consuming the signs of ordinary life, Aurier tells us (as did Baudelaire before him), the artist is nourished; with an imagination that is grand and maybe a bit reckless, Schutz digests and transforms reality into something utterly startling and far greater than the sum of its parts.

Meghan Dailey is a frequent contributor to Artforum.