New York

Dana Schutz


“Missing Pictures” was Dana Schutz’s twelfth solo exhibition, and it’s time to stop appraising her as a prodigy. Neither instant nor sustained stardom has ruined her, and these twelve paintings evinced the same luxe, wack, et volupté she has been praised for before, with the same ambitious chewing up and spitting out of art-historical exemplars. Ten minutes in the gallery was time enough for a viewer to cycle through thoughts of Guston, Manet, Kandinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Bonnard, Rodin, and Johns—whose hatch marks Schutz has adapted as parquet flooring in a scene of periwigged Founding Fathers, whose bodies decompose into gray stripes that might signify shattered granite or the guts of electronics (Signing, 2009). Group Massage, 2009, quotes Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. In Schutz’s version, however, the legs and torso of Manet’s reclining flâneur belong to different sitters, one whose face has melted, and a Ferris wheel and roller coaster loom on the striped horizon.

Having a body, Schutz suggests—or a context, or an identity, indeed maintaining integrity of any kind—is problematic. But what should we expect in an age of drag-and-drop and robot war? And what, us worry? Thus the singer in Guitar Girl, 2009, looks as if she’s persevering in a high wind, while real black holes—cut in the canvas and lined with black velvet—open event horizons in her hand, her instrument, and her right eye. (Schutz has used this technique extensively in the past; Guitar Girl was the only example here.) Typer, 2009, wears a yellow sweater, a badge of hope to counteract the troubling way in which the purple squiggles of his features migrate off his head onto the curtains. Schutz’s transmogrification of Rodin’s Thinker towers against a sky of Johnsian lozenges, which might also be a blue-and-white batik fabric. From an indeterminate zone in his chest extend two pairs of legs. One set wears a yellow-and-orange-striped skirt and blue ballet slippers, the other lavender leggings and sneakers. The Thinker himself is composed of nudge-wink “abstract” marks not unlike the gray guts exposed in Signing. He holds a bouquet of flowers, and they all seem happy together.

Sealed in an ersatz realm of deliquescing and/or sliced-up forms, Schutz’s figures embody a cartoonish horror that isn’t really horrifying, and a joie de vivre that isn’t wholly joyous. Cartoonish, though, is too often thrown around as a descriptor of contemporary painting. Certainly in the critical literature amassed since Schutz’s 2002 debut, the adjective appears as regularly as the names Guston and Picasso, plus all the others from Géricault to Ensor to Picabia to Kirchner to Neel to Gauguin to Modersohn-Becker to Immendorff. This is so inclusive that it sounds ridiculous. An argument could be made for each comparison, however, and blithely violent pastiche is obviously among the names of Schutz’s games. This is partly what cartoonish stands for. It also indicates, in Schutz’s case, garish and viscerally satisfying color; extreme yet always reversible distortion; humor of the dismemberment-is-libidinally-liberating kind; a stretchiness of mass and con- tour, so that persons, objects, and settings interpenetrate; and a sense of narrative constructed through simple gestures. In a cartoon, being cruel or ugly is forgivable, even innocent, if (a) it’s not realistic (b) it’s pursued with graphic skill and (c) it’s clever about its cultural sources. Expressionist angst and monstrous caricature are fun in cartoons, and terror and pleasure patently fake yet can read as devastatingly sincere. All the sly quotation notwithstanding, what’s interesting about Schutz’s splat! sproing! response to two hundred years of advanced painting is how earnestly she seems to mean it.

Frances Richard