Published in Parkett issue 75.
No work in Brooklyn-based painter Dana Schutz’s first three exhibitions could have prepared viewers for Presentation (2005), which was first exhibited earlier this year in “Greater New York 2005″ at P.S. 1. (It is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and the museum was so eager to exhibit it in the permanent collection galleries that they removed it from the walls of their outer-borough affiliate several weeks before the end of the exhibition.) The painting was, to my mind, one of the best works in the exhibition, nearly unmatched in its ambition. Beyond scale—at approximately ten by fourteen feet, it was the largest work Schutz had created to date—it was also the most complicated canvas she had ever attempted.
Her first solo show, “Frank From Observation,” was held just three years ago. Frank, who looked surprisingly like the comedian Chris Elliott with a sunburn and long, stringy hair, was described by the artist as the last name on Earth—a fact that made him “the last subject” and her “the last painter.” This construct allowed her to paint pretty much anything she wanted: Frank as a Proboscis Monkey (2002); Frank as a Reclining Nude (2002); even images in which her companion doesn’t appear at all. Her freedom came from the pair’s isolation: no one else could doubt the veracity of what she depicted; the imagined world was complete with two inhabitants.
The majority of the canvases in “Self-Eaters and the People Who Love Them” and “Panic,” her next two solo exhibitions, depicted individual “self-eaters,” humanlike creatures that find nourishment by ingesting their own body parts (which they then regenerate), who seem to be citizens of an unseen community that one can imagine inhabiting a deserted island or remote jungle. In these mostly easel-scale paintings, which often teeter on the thin line between representation and abstraction, Schutz’s imagined world boasted a greater population if not yet the greater complexity (social and, for that matter, compositional) inherent to depicting human interaction.
As if Schutz had spun a top and set these lives in motion, her paintings during this time depicted small but ever-widening circles of activity, and the contours of her world began to show. But recalling the title of Schutz’s first exhibition, we are reminded that her works are imagined but paradoxically also observed. Even when she comprised one-half of the imagined world’s population, a quasi-clinical remove allowed us to believe she was looking at this fictional place through a screen or window, coolly contemplating the scenes before her. As the critic Jed Perl wrote recently of the lesser-known American painter Mary Lyons, Schutz’s works were “a realist account of surrealist possibility.” (1)
Whereas the works in “Self-Eaters” and “Panic” depict individuals or small groups of people in acid hues, Presentation includes a teeming mass of faces worthy of comparison to James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889 (1888). These people, ostensibly the self-eaters whose self-sufficiency had previously kept them apart, sport the grave looks of those summoned for an important declaration; “Panic” indeed.
Before them lies a mutant body, bones broken and limbs ripped asunder, on a simple examination table (constructed from a slab of wood) that hovers over a similarly sized hole in the ground. In the front row of the crowd, nestled close to the edge of this table, ruddy-faced congregants stare, whisper among themselves, and cover their noses and mouths. One woman, in what looks like surgeon’s scrubs and gloves, slices into an elephantine hand held up by a rudimentary sling; it is twice as large as her head.
The chimera’s eyes are open: Is this a biopsy or an autopsy? Is this examination the precursor to a burial? Or is it an exhumation? The figure appears to have an intravenous tube emerging from its left arm, but it is not hooked up to any equipment or medicine, and beyond that the painting’s details are ambiguous. What has happened such that everyone, previously enjoying idyllic seclusion as they fashioned new body parts for themselves, has congregated here? The difference in size between members of the crowd and the object of their undivided attention is notable. Perhaps this limp figure, created from a thicket of yellow, orange, pink, and red brushstrokes, is a foreign visitor, à la Lemuel Gulliver in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
A second type of painterly observation informs this painting. Presentation‘s table-in-front, crowd-behind composition strikingly recalls Thomas Eakins’s surgery-ward canvas The Agnew Clinic (1889), while its bright color scheme might be described as a synthetic amplification of the colors found in Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings, which are also alluded to by the bright flowers at the lower corners of Schutz’s work. Large exhibitions dedicated to Eakins and Gauguin were on view simultaneously at the Metropolitan Museum from June to October 2002, and Schutz fuses by painterly alchemy these two influences, certainly among others, to make something distinctly her own. It is not a criticism to say that Schutz is a canny expositor of art history, obviously unafraid of borrowing liberal samples from earlier masterpieces to lend a charge to her own paintings. (Her painting Party  distinctly echoes Philip Guston’s infamous portrait of a phlebitic Richard Nixon, titled San Clemente , which was itself on view at the Metropolitan during the autumn and winter of 2003-04.)
The grandeur of Presentation bears out Schutz’s decision to transparently invoke such well-known artworks, and the painting does not suffer much by comparison. Perl, in the essay quoted above, notes that, “if painters are good enough, they can convince us of the importance of any subject.” Standing before Schutz’s wall-size canvas, the viewer can easily project herself into the pictorial space, thereby furthering our empathy with the scene it depicts and the fascination it holds; we come to see, like those small faces receding into the background, the importance of the event at hand. The ambiguity of Presentation‘s action begins to approach the open-endedness of everyday life. So far it is Schutz’s greatest work in the realm of (wholly imagined) observation.
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If Presentation literally lays out its subject for the viewer, pushing up against the glass of Schutz’s window onto her imagined world, the subjects of many of her newest works, exhibited in September at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin, come from the our side of the real/invented divide. Michael Jackson, Terri Schiavo, religious (and other) fanatics, and corporate titans all make appearances in these canvases. While visiting Schutz’s Brooklyn studio last August, I asked whether her progress from imagination to reality could be chalked up to a newfound confidence. She demurred, but whatever the impetus for this progression, it appears with (only a little bit of) hindsight perfectly logical.
The Autopsy of Michael Jackson (2005), included in the Berlin exhibition, is a kind of real-world mirror image of Presentation. In this canvas, which is five by nine feet, the King of Pop’s cadaver lies naked on an operating table, his feet, attached to too-long legs, pointing in the opposite direction of the figure in Presentation. With his pallid, blotchy, yellow-green skin, his neutered genitals (little more than a collection of slightly darker brushstrokes), his jowls pulled toward the tabletop by gravity, and his torso marked by a significant Y-shaped scar, the singer looks simultaneously withered and strangely childlike. Jackson is separated both from his public image and from his legions of adoring fans, and in his isolation one can see the toll wrought upon his body. Schutz peers behind the facade—aviator sunglasses with silver lenses, caked make-up, maneuvers calculated by public relations managers, devotees outside the courtroom—to elucidate the pathos evoked when society places anyone on that high a pedestal. It arouses feelings for Jackson most likely not felt for a very long time.
The film critic David Denby wrote recently that for filmmakers, “to be a good fantasist one first has to be a good realist.” (2) If we extrapolate his comment to other art forms, Schutz’s paintings are proof that his maxim cuts both ways, as there is something distinct about her depictions of real-world subjects that she might not otherwise have discovered without first inventing her own universe. The question I put to Schutz about confidence implied that she would necessarily be leaving behind her fantastical worlds in favor of first-hand accounts of the real world. I had neglected to consider other canvases then in her studio, and to realize that the strength of a painting like The Autopsy of Michael Jackson relies significantly on the acuity of the artist’s observations—of the “spinning tops” she has repeatedly set in motion-perfected over the years.
Too few critics make the distinction between work that is good and work that matters beyond the terms it sets for itself. Likewise few artists make art that fits both criteria. As the two strands of her art mutually reinforce one another, Schutz’s observations, rendered with pleasurable abandon in the wildest of colors, will come to matter very much indeed.
(1) Perl, Jed. “Formalism and Its Discontents.” The New Republic, September 12, 2005, p. 33.
(2) Denby, David. “The Moviegoer.” The New Yorker, September 12, 2005, p. 9.