Art Review: Dana Schutz: If the Face Had Wheels, Denver Art Museum

Dana Schutz, The autopsy of Michael Jackson2005.
Oil on canvas; 60 x 108 in.
Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan.
© Dana Schutz.
Courtesy of the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York.

The possibilities of painting

Like the Denver Art Museum concurrent exhibit, Become Van Gogh, Dana Schutz: If the face had wheels, reviews ten years of work by an expressionist painter. The difference is that Schutz is very much alive and already widely acclaimed. The exhibition, which runs until January 13, 2013 and which reviews Schutz’s first decade of work as a painter, was born following the obtaining of the Roy by the artist. R Neuberger Exhibition Prize, which funds an exhibition and accompanying catalog 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 guest artist in Hamilton at the University of Denver while in town for the DAM exhibit installation.

It’s impossible not to have a visceral reaction to Schutz’s work. His canvases are vast and painted in bold bands of bright, cartoonish colors. The subject matter is intensely physical and often disturbing: bodily functions, outbursts of emotion and sometimes apocalyptic scenes of death and disaster. In Picnic sung of 2008, a group of picnickers inhabit a pastoral landscape reminiscent of the works of Matisse, only to be seen crumbling to ashes, as if they had suffered a Hiroshima-style explosion. The titles of the exhibited works include Thumbsucker, lick a brickand Shake, cook, pee (the latest in a series of tables based on verbs for actions that don’t necessarily combine well). Schutz herself views the works here as, among other things, an investigation into her responses to a tumultuous decade that began with the events of 9/11.

Among his more explicitly topical works are men’s retreat from 2005, in which she portrays the world’s power brokers (including Ted Turner and Bill Gates) blindfolded and playing bongo drums, doing confidence tumbles, stepping on hot coals and painting their faces in a tangled forest and blooming as lush as anything dreamed of Customs Rousseau. Schutz recounts how the possible meanings of this scene evolved in his mind over time, alternately suggesting the heart of a conspiracy or some strange form of penance. In 2005 Schutz also painted The autopsy of Michael Jackson, even though the singer was alive and well at the time. Schutz says she conceived 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 start of the show, she says, because it marked a breakthrough for her. She had posed the problem of painting things that can not be observed, such as the sensation of sneezing. Schutz notes that she began painting at a time when closely observed work, often in a photographic or academic style, seemed the norm. She wanted to explore what it might mean to produce “pictorial, subjective” works; works that use brushstrokes on canvas to evoke our unseen and untold inner worlds. How could she use the dynamism of paint to capture fleeting thoughts and sensations without appearing, in her words, “regressive or neo-expressionist”?

His aesthetic solution seems to involve radically simplified figures that might appear childish if the compositions of which they are a part did not reflect such an acute understanding of painting technique, tradition, and possibilities. This is particularly evident in the deep nervousness 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, says Schutz, was meant to act as a visual resting place or escape hatch for both the viewer and the woman working in the painting. (Adding an extra layer of potential meaning, the painting within a painting is an evocative canyon scene by Thomas Moran Yellowstone Grand Canyon which I once heard an eminent scholar of American art, quoting another art historian, refer to as “the great national vagina”.)

Among his most dramatic expressions of this quest are works such as Devourer (2004), which depict people consuming their own bodies, an act of both self-destruction and, potentially, regeneration. These works, says Schutz, originated in doodles she made over the phone; she long resisted bringing them into her serious work, fearing they would be “too distressed”, 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 elaborating the “fictional logic” of self-consumption in purely pictorial terms.

Dana Schutz: devourer

Dana Schutz, Devourer2004.
Oil on canvas; 28 x 22 in.
Collection of the artist.
© Dana Schutz.
Courtesy of the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

This idea of ​​”fictitious logic” also informs a series based on self-completed sentences by Google. Typing the phrase “I’m in…” into the search field gave him, among other things, I like shooting in a natural environment, painted in 2008, in which a sniper takes aim at the inhabitant of an ordinary room, apparently reconstructed in the middle of a desert. Paintings like this remind me of the works of Philip Guston, in whose late work cartoonish, hooded, Klansman-inspired figures express public and private anxieties. I also found myself thinking about the almost forgotten American Surrealist Peter Blume, whose work in the decades around World War II also gave disturbing, and at times dark and witty, pictorial form to collective anxieties. The “magical realist” George Tooker, painter of the famous Subway from 1950 also came to mind.

Christoph Heinrich, director of the Denver Art Museum, notes that Schutz’s exhibit pairs well with Become Van Gogh, because each plunges the viewer into the evolving work of a single painter. Completing a fall calendar of individual retrospectives is El Anatsui: The last time I wrote to you about Africa, which showcases four decades of work by the Ghanaian-born artist, who now lives and works in Nigeria. Crafted from found objects and everyday materials, and completed by teams of artisans under the supervision of the artists, El Anatsui’s work offers an intriguing counterpoint to the intensely personal and typically painterly visions of Van Gogh and Schutz.

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Dana Schutz: If the face had wheels appears at the Denver Art Museum, 100 W 14th Ave Pkwy, Denver, CO, from November 11, 2012 to January 16, 2013.