Dana Schutz; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Boston, Massachusetts; July 26 – November 26, 2017

Review by Virginia M. G. Anderson, Independent Scholar

 

Dana Schutz, Getting Dressed All at Once, 2012. Oil on canvas, 73 ½ x 56 ¼ in. (186.7 x 142.9 cm). Private Collection. Courtesy Reiss Klein Partners. Photo by John Kennard. © Dana Schutz.

Dana Schutz’s solo exhibition presents an unflinching view of humanity as awkward, desperate, small-minded, and ineffectual. Her figures’ attempts toward movement, creation, or any kind of progress seem mired in a Kafkaesque futility. And yet, the nihilistic despair of Schutz’s subject matter is countered by the large, bright, complex qualities of the paintings themselves, which are packed full of dynamic shapes and impastoed brushwork. The result is a body of work that is both deeply perturbing and darkly comical, the painterly equivalent of a Larry David sitcom.

One cannot help but see the selection of paintings presented at the ICA in light of the controversy that surrounded the exhibition of Schutz’s Open Casket (2016) in the 2017 Whitney Biennial (a work not included in this show), and which led protesters to call on the ICA to cancel its exhibition. The show is something of a missed opportunity to frame Open Casket in the broader dialogue of the artist’s range of subject matter. It doesn’t include some of the gory, shockingly violent content of earlier series such as the SelfEaters (2003-04) – in which the human body was treated like so much raw material to be dispassionately dissected, consumed, or discarded – nor does it include some of her more overtly political paintings. Those series could serve to at least contextualize Schutz’s engagement with the subject of Till’s murder (and the visual mass consumption of the photographic imagery disseminated at the time of his death). It seems arbitrary to criticize an exhibition for what it doesn’t contain, but the passionate debate elicited by Open Casket invites a timely curatorial, and not just critical, response.

Instead, the paintings in the ICA exhibition eschew explicit violence or politics in favor of generalized, almost philosophical abjection and frustration; Schutz depicts her human subjects most frequently in agitated but ineffective action. In Getting Dressed All at Once (2012), the arms, legs and torso of the central figure are partially entangled in a maelstrom of garments – a striped shirt, orange jacket, and maroon pants. The most legible element is a brown ankle boot, suspended from its laces by two of the figure’s four arms.

Schutz’s work abounds in art historical references. Picasso’s analytic cubism informs the multiplicity of body parts and vantage points, and there are allusions to the works of Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Bruce Nauman, and Jasper Johns: a list that encapsulates the fertile combination of the painterly and the existential that Schutz generates here. Building the Boat While Sailing (2012) is a mashup of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) with Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), but one that empties out the anguish and tragedy of its predecessors in favor of chaotic entropy and a Waiting-for-Godot-like ambivalence.

Schutz’s particular blend of abstraction and figuration draws the eye in closer, though, past the iconographical detective work required by her subject matter, to the materiality of the paint. Thin washes are juxtaposed with loosely scrubbed passages where the paint is frosting-thick; worm-like lengths are squeezed straight from the tube; wavy scrapes comb through paint down to the canvas. Schutz experiments with the stuff of her art, never letting us forget that all of this struggle and pointlessly expended energy are themselves only a constructed illusion. It’s uncomfortable to watch – and too compelling to ignore.

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Virginia M. G. Anderson is an adjunct professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Program in Museums and Society at Johns Hopkins University.