New York

Dana Schutz, Shaking Out the Bed, 2015, oil on canvas, 9’ 6” × 17’ 9 3/4”.

Dana Schutz, Shaking Out the Bed, 2015, oil on canvas, 9’ 6” × 17’ 9 3/4”.

Dana Schutz

Petzel Gallery | West 18th Street

Dana Schutz, Shaking Out the Bed, 2015, oil on canvas, 9’ 6” × 17’ 9 3/4”.

When was the last time you walked into a show of paintings and couldn’t remember your art-history safe word? Dana Schutz’s recent display of twelve canvases and four charcoal drawings overwhelmed. Every work, all but one from 2015, had so much going on in any corner that there was little room for the viewer. I didn’t find these works easy to like. I mean this as a compliment: I liked them very much.

Schutz does give us some familiar things to hang on to, including her trademark portraiture that makes her the Bruegel of our time. (I’m also reminded that she grew up looking at Diego Rivera’s murals in Detroit.) But rather than encountering the lonely pathos that sneaked into many earlier works (her Swimming, Smoking, Crying from 2009 comes to mind), we fall in and out of stages of embodiment—if embodiment means locating the self under conditions of containment—whether catapulted into nightmares and cartoon grotesqueries, or observing a figure caught midsleepwalk, her hands smushed up against the painting’s foreground as if she were trying to escape its bounds.

Elevators are the perfect vehicles for these roller-coaster constraints. I’ve always hated the Aerosmith song “Love in an Elevator,” so I’m happy to see Schutz turn its conceit upside down in Fight in an Elevator and Fight in an Elevator 2, works that gave the show its name, even if this meant recalling, among far worse elevator scenes, the riveting afterparty drama of pop titans (an incident captured on hotel surveillance video and widely distributed on TMZ and other media outlets). More often today, elevators are antiseptic, interstitial nowheres, the awkwardness of riding with strangers in close proximity alleviated by smartphone absorption, which dissuades eye contact, let alone small talk, let alone touch.

Maybe Schutz was thinking about this when she painted her all-out brawls. Maybe she was thinking of art history, and of access, too: Fight in an Elevator 2 is framed by chrome doors that are either opening or closing on the colorful battle scene, an allusion to triptych altarpieces whose outer panels were often painted in grisaille, hiding the revelation of their bright interiors until high holy days.

Such associations linger in the hubbub, whether the Boschian horror of the quartered drumstick figure in Glider, or the Hockneyesque splash and trope of bathers in Slow Motion Shower. The latter title might sound sexy, but it’s a mini battle of surfaces hitting surfaces and detonating midstream: water, skin, soap all exploding out at once in sharp clumps and puffs. The figure’s ablutions are aided by limbs that become elephantine and octopoid, stretching like Jackson Pollock’s Stenographic Figure, ca. 1942.

Enter Assembling an Octopus, 2013, which depicts a group effort to create a cephalopod piecemeal from various media—easel and finger-painting, sewing, Photoshopping—in a Brighton Beach–esque landscape. We’ve come to expect visceral allusions to the act of painting from Schutz (see also Lion Eating Its Tamer); here, the numerous pictures within pictures include a Les Demoiselles d’Avignon bunch of grapes, and a discarded Capri Sun juice box on the sand, whose packaging directly reflects the yellow sun and blue sky of the overall scene.

And then there’s Shaking Out the Bed, a canvas with almost the same dimensions as most New York City bedrooms, or even, it so happens, a certain mode of vertical conveyance. Amid its loose uproar, a calendar reads JUNE 27, a digital clock 12:31. There’s a passport, a book about cognitive behavioral therapy, a slice of pizza, Self magazine, a shower of coins and bills—the props through which we try to be ourselves and get by doing what we do. Schutz’s compositions feel compelled by the ways in which we contain our highs and lows, our means of cultural circulation. Or, as Beyoncé succinctly puts it in the remix of “Flawless”: “Of course sometimes shit goes down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator.”

Prudence Peiffer