The Possibilities of Painting
Like the Denver Art Museum’s concurrent exhibition, Becoming Van Gogh, Dana Schutz: If the Face Had Wheels, surveys ten years of work by an expressionistic painter. The difference is that Schutz is very much alive, and already widely acclaimed. The exhibition, which runs through January 13, 2013, and which surveys Schutz’s first decade of work as a painter, came into being as a result of the artist winning the Roy. R Neuberger Exhibition Prize, which funds an exhibition and accompanying catalogue by an emerging artist. Some of Schutz’s works on paper are on display at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, and she was also a Hamilton Visiting Artist at the University of Denver while in the city for the installation of the DAM exhibition.
It’s impossible not to have a visceral reaction to Schutz’s work. Her canvases are vast, and painted in bold swathes of cartoonishly bright colors. The subject matter is intensely physical and often unsettling: bodily functions, explosions of emotion, and sometimes apocalyptic scenes of death and disaster. In Singed Picnic of 2008, a group of picnickers inhabit a pastoral landscape reminiscent of the works of Matisse, but they are seen crumbling into ash, as if they’ve been subjected to a Hiroshima-like blast. Titles of works on view include Thumbsucker, Lick a Brick, and Shaking, Cooking, Peeing (the last from a series of paintings based on verbs for actions that do not necessarily combine well). Schutz herself regards the works here as, among other things, a survey of her responses to a tumultuous decade that began with the events of 9/11.
Among her more explicitly topical works are Men’s Retreat of 2005, in which she depicts the world’s power brokers (including Ted Turner and Bill Gates) with blindfolds and bongo drums, doing trust falls, walking on hot coals and painting one another’s faces in a tangled, flowery forest as lush as anything dreamed by le Douanier Rousseau. Schutz speaks of how the possible meanings of this scene have shifted in her mind over time, suggesting alternately the heart of a conspiracy or a weird form of penance. In 2005 Schutz also painted The Autopsy of Michael Jackson, though the singer was then very much alive. Schutz says she intended the work as a meditation on mortality and the passage of time.
The show begins with a relatively modest work, Sneeze, painted in 2001. Schutz wanted this piece to hang at the beginning of the show, she says, because it marked a breakthrough for her. She had set herself the problem of painting things that can’t be observed, like the sensation of sneezing. Schutz notes that she began to paint in a time where closely observed works, often in a photographic or academic style, seemed the norm. She wanted to explore what it might mean to produce “painterly, subjective” works; works that use brushstrokes on canvas to evoke our unseeable, unsayable inner worlds. How could she use the dynamism of painting to capture fleeting thoughts and sensations without seeming, in her words, “regressive or neo-Expressionist”?
Her aesthetic solution seems to involve radically simplified figures which might seem childlike if the compositions of which they are a part did not reflect such a keen understanding of technique, tradition, and the possibilities of paint. This is especially apparent in the deeply unnerving How We Would Give Birth (2007) in which, as a counterpoint to the horrific childbirth-gone-wrong that dominates the foreground, a carefully rendered landscape of the Hudson River School is depicted hanging on the wall. The painting-within-a-painting, Schutz says, was meant act as a visual resting place or escape hatch both for the viewer and for the laboring woman in the painting. (Adding a further layer of potential meaning, the painting-within-a-painting is a canyon scene suggestive of Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone which I once heard a prominent scholar of American art, quoting another art historian, refer to as the “grand national vagina.”)
Among her more dramatic expressions of this quest are works such as Devourer (2004), which depict people in the act of consuming their own bodies, an act both of self-destruction and, potentially, of regeneration. These works, Schutz says, had their origin in doodles she made while on the phone; she long resisted making them a part of her serious work, for fear they were “too angsty,” reading as “bad therapy.” Yet in the end she could not resist the formal challenge of depicting how one would go about consuming one’s own body, of working out the “fictional logic” of self-consumption in purely pictorial terms.
This idea of “fictional logic” also informs a series based on phrases auto-completed by Google. Typing the phrase “I’m into…” into the search box gave her, among other things, I’m into Shooting in Natural Environments, painted in 2008, in which a sniper takes aim at the resident of an ordinary room, apparently reconstructed in the middle of a desert. Paintings like this put me in mind of the works of Philip Guston, in whose late work cartoonish, hooded, Klansmen-inspired figures act out public and private anxieties. I also found myself thinking of the almost forgotten American surrealist Peter Blume, whose work in the decades around World War II also gave unsettling, and sometimes darkly witty, pictorial form to collective anxieties. The “magical realist” George Tooker, painter of the famous Subway of 1950, came to mind as well.
Christoph Heinrich, director of the Denver Art Museum, notes that Schutz’s exhibit pairs well with Becoming Van Gogh, as each immerses the viewer in the evolving work of a single painter. Rounding out a fall schedule of individual retrospectives is El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You About Africa, which showcases four decades of work by the Ghana-born artist, who now lives and works in Nigeria. Made from found objects and everyday materials, and completed by teams of craftsmen under the artists’ supervision, El Anatsui’s work provides an intriguing counterpoint to the intensely personal, distinctively painterly visions of Van Gogh and Schutz.
Dana Schutz: If the Face Had Wheels appears at the Denver Art Museum, 100 W 14th Ave Pkwy, Denver, CO, November 11, 2012 – January 16, 2013.