Dana Schutz’s Grotesque and Fantastical Works Linger

Dana Schutz’s work was recently featured in two Denver museums. A 10-year survey, Dana Schutz: If the Face Had Wheels was on view at the Denver Art Museum while in conjunction Dana Schutz: Works on Paper was presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Schutz’s bright works have been compared to ones by John Currin, Francisco Goya and Alex Katz. I would add Francis Bacon. However, the subject matter for Schutz’s paintings are unique to her, though not autobiographical. Many works are fantastical and grisly, sprouting from the artist’s hyperactive imagination.

Schutz paints hypotheticals—things unreal yet plausible. When viewing her paintings the viewer must give herself over to the possibility of the impossible. Subject matter for some of the paintings in her oeuvre: A cannibal devouring his own face; the autopsied corpse of Michael Jackson (created years before the singer’s death); a woman stripping a wood floor with her teeth; another woman giving birth while gazing at a landscape painting, a face under water puffing a cigarette tears in her eyes.

The DAM exhibition originated at the Neuberger Museum where Schutz was awarded the Roy R. Neuberger Exhibition Prize, a biennial prize given every two years to an artist for an early career survey and monographic catalogue. It is an exhibition that features a dichotomy of subject matter involving more dissection and dismemberment than Junior High Biology class, rendered in a vibrant and sunny color palette. The show was grouped chronologically and opened with Sneeze (2001) a small painting in which a thick, lump of colorful mucus spews from a woman’s nose, head down, long, blonde hair falling forward. Thick rows of paint squeezed directly from the tube appear to force the eyes to shut tightly. This is a painting about how it feels to sneeze, not what it looks like when one sneezes. Our eyes are closed; we cannot know what it looks like, yet here the artist creates the experience visually.

A few years later, Schutz began drawing the “Self Eaters” Series, often as a non-conscious exercise while on the phone or doing something else–not focused on making a finished drawing. The series depicts people in the midst of devouring their own faces and bodies. At first the artist didn’t think she could paint this subject because it felt, in her words, “too angtsy.” Today she suggests: “If you could eat yourself, you could digest yourself. … Then you could remake yourself.”

“Schutz began by imagining how someone would begin such an act. For example, if one were going to eat her own face, would she use her upper teeth to bite her lower jaw, or her bottom teeth to eat her nose? The artist must also consider how decisions about composition, color, and paint application determine the look of these impossible scenes. As she began the painting Face Eater (2004), Schutz wondered where the eyes should appear on the canvas. For the artist, eyes serve as a focal point of a face, and help viewers to identify with the subject, even if that subject is doing something inconceivable. In Face Eater, the eyes fill the center of the painting with a hypnotic reminder that the creature doing this bizarre act is supposed to be human,” according to Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Renee B. Miller of the Denver Art Museum.

Schutz explores physical sensations, actions and translates them to canvas in work that is created entirely from her imagination. There is no observation, no photographic source, no model and she presents the viewer with things no one has ever seen before. Take for example The Autopsy of Michael Jackson (2005) that began with the artist thinking about a picture that would be taken, but hadn’t been yet. A sock, a glove, an elephant man skull and a femur bone surround the pop star’s body.

However, painting an autopsy was not as unbearable for the artist as painting How We Would Give Birth (2007) because it is such an intense subject. The built in problem Schutz created for herself was how to represent something that was very uncomfortable for her to represent. She designed an escape route by have a landscape painting as focal object the woman giving birth and for anyone looking at the painting. Then she created this special separation between the upper body and the lower body, between what is going on in the landscape painting and what is happening in the bed. Two very separate spaces that are supposed to be natural but that she conveys as equally artificial.

More metaphorical than artificial is the “Verb” series in which Schutz explores how to depict simultaneous actions imagined by combining three seemingly incompatible actions together such as in Swimming, Smoking, Crying (2009). The artist admits to screaming Nirvana lyrics under water between breaths while on her high school swim team. When she later learned of water’s noise conductivity qualities, she determined that was why she “didn’t have many friends on the swim team.” The three actions together seem to be about one important act—breathing.

She also painted “the worst thing she could imagine: scraping wood with your teeth.” Carpenter (2010) is a painting she hopes is contagious, that it makes the viewer think about their teeth and gums, something most people do not often think about.

Schutz doesn’t think of her paintings as gory, “and I also don’t think of them as too far out either. And I don’t expect other people to feel the way I do, but that’s just how I feel.”

Drawing from a long tradition of Abstract Expressionism, Schutz creates an imaginative and mythic universe full of grotesque creatures and fantastical characters. Her paintings feature wildly colorful brushstrokes and her color monotypes showcase the sensory overload and luscious texture found in those paintings, while her black-and-white drawings are haunting and gestural, blurring together figurative and abstract elements. Whether cruelty or hatred, Schutz pushes the envelope by painting in a whimsical manner those things seemingly not possible or plausible to paint and she does it with painterly aplomb.


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