New York’s Petzel Gallery with Dana Schutz: “Imagine Me and You”

Mary Hrbacek
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Dana Scutz, Beat Out the Sun, oil on canvas, 94 x 87.5,” 2018

Petzel Gallery presents “Dana Schutz, “Imagine Me and You,” an exhibition of twelve new large-scale oil paintings and five bronze sculptures that makes visual commentary in multilayered social, personal and political tableaux.  Schutz confidently confront the viewer directly, with breathtakingly fierce, even brutal images. They are not “pretty”; the artist is not overly preoccupied with aesthetics, or with traditional “good taste.”  Her assertive art is instead utterly honest, prepped to seize the awareness of a media-saturated public for whom art, film and television supply an overload of daily visual sustenance.

Schutz does not employ the classic “Golden Section” or bother about harmonious colors relationships.  She uses the strong primary colors, often unmixed, preferably a deep red that makes a passionate visceral appeal which disarms audience’s critical, intellectual armor.  On first view, such explicit openness and forceful directness constitutes a definite challenge which is bound to be vaguely unsettling.  The works might even be described as slightly caricaturish.  But they have another kind of beauty, a beauty that ensues when one is sincere, authentic and real.

Schutz’s inventive symbolic imagery enables her to engage the viewer’s unconscious, in messages meant to be gradually apprehended at a level beneath her textural surfaces.  Her thickly painted impastos create a visually compelling effect of depth and volume.  Some of the works relate to a layered cubist vernacular employed in a loose tumbling technique, which she combines with emotional expressionistic patterns.  The paintings are deep, disturbing and poetic. This is not conceptual art. There is no text to explain the underlying content.  The meaning of these works takes time to grasp and absorb as they communicate subliminally; they can also be impenetrable.  They speak to current issues indirectly, in highly charged yet veiled meanings.

Schutz is far from timid; she is outgoing.  While the messages require some unraveling and interpretation, her imaginative statements are nonetheless quite commanding.  She is not a “people pleaser.”  Sometimes she exposes the underpinnings of the subject’s feelings in adult portrayals.  Perhaps she has noticed a physical charge between the recipient and giver of an award, a connection which seems to have inspired her highly original image that is graphically yet obliquely expressed in her work entitled “The Presenter.“  Her art is no doubt at times autobiographical, but it is impossible to be certain if the imagery in “The Presenter” arises from a dream, is in fact a visual diary, or is rather an explicit comment on a public event.

Right: Dana Scutz, Strangers, oil on canvas, 84 x 88,” 2018

Schutz’s pictures display references to Phillip Guston, George Condo and German painter Stephanie Gutheit.  She expunges her fears and negative emotions in works such as “Painting During an Earthquake,” and “The Treadmill,”

which is a frantic and rather hilarious depiction of a woman engaged in a workout.  Her commentary on these personal experiences is droll and ironic.  It is conceivable that the inspiration for the piece entitled “Mountain Group” arose when she attempted to paint a motif en plein air, only to have her mountain view blocked by hordes of nature-loving hikers.  The artist’s frustration here is palpable, especially for anyone who has tried painting outdoors from nature.  Her work entitled “Beating the Sun” may refer to a hate group in the process of destroying the sun’s light, or perhaps the enlightened, socially conscious vibe of inclusion and #metoo disclosures it symbolizes.

Schutz is incredibly brave; her audacity is breathtaking.  She has a fearless story to tell that will not be suppressed by propriety or tradition.  Her works are the antithesis of convention.  The artist may be angry, she may be outraged or even saddened by a sense of “Is this all there is?”  But this exhibition explicitly demonstrates her determination to make her intimate statement.

Left: Artist, Dana Shutz

New York City is not exactly famous for its “heart” or for the “soul” of its character.  It takes pride in being tough and in being brutal with what it imagines is the admirable and necessary intention of weeding out newcomers, “the weak,” or the untalented.  Schutz is a risktaker who opens her heart; to frankly expose one’s life experiences to such an audience is either unaware or enlightened.  This exhibition provides an impressive example of inclusive truthfulness in the artworld.

Schutz displays wry humor in “Painting in an Earthquake,” where the artist anchors a skeletal head with her foot, as she scans her work amidst random materials that have tumbled to the floor.  She stretches four arms every which way in an attempt to control the damage.  The figure, whose back faces the viewer, does not seem anxious to leave the dangerous scene.  She is nothing if not stalwart.  Schutz is especially adept at creating provocative vignettes, as seen in the thumb cum arm that transforms into a male body part in the painting entitled “Presenter.”  This painting displays a woman whose skirt is pulled to her chin, exposing her sexuality from the front.  Can it be that the figure compromised herself in order to receive the award?  There is no telling, but her chin transforms into a large male organ that fits within the fingers of the oversized “presenter’s” hand.  Painting about scary or daunting experiences seems to help Schutz find her way through them to achieve a sense of resolution or acceptance of a difficult incident.

The primitive, fierce looking female portrayed in “Touched” is a miracle of angry indignation.  Judging by the red slash (brushstroke) on her broadly painted face, it is possible that she has been beaten.  The economically painted ciphers that indicate her two breasts show marks that may signify they have been pinched.  In an image with public underpinnings entitled “Washing Monsters,” the large naked arm of “Big Brother,” controller of the status quo, shields and protects the big headed, small body of an executive villain who may have been bailed out from the blame of those who were gratuitously molested.  Horns (horniness) adorn the top of the oversized naked arm.  The executive has been “washed” or expunged of all accountability.

Right: Dana Schutz, Mountain Group, oil on canvas, 120 x 156,” 2018

In “Treadmill,” rays of light emanate from the TV monitor as the figure one assumes to be the artist frantically works out on exercise equipment.  Like most people grappling with exercise equipment, the woman seems overwrought.  The humorous image reveals the artist’s frailty and touches many viewers’ life pursuits.  “Strangers” is a fearful enigmatic image fraught with the impending need to defend oneself with a bat and a frying pan.  As the protagonists are alone, it may indicate a modicum of imagined fear of persecution, which may be justifiable or just an illusory threat.

Schutz’s bronze sculptural works are filled with energy and passion.  There is a sense of Picasso’s playfulness about pieces such as “Head in the Wind,” which expresses the movement of the unseen air, and “Sun Lady,” in which rays are made solid on a hovering sun, perched above the figure’s head. These five bronze pieces, marked by fingerprints, recall fresh clay works which are imaginative, freer than traditional figurative bronze sculptures.

Dana Schutz’s individualistic, provocative paintings challenge the status quo typically on view in a city that takes pride in the historic prominence it achieved in its Abstract Expressionist heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, and in its Pop art tradition led by Andy Warhol, that peaked in the 1960s.  Since that time, especially during the culture wars of the 1990s, painting has periodically been pronounced to be demonstrably “dead.” Human beings by their nature have forever been eating, sleeping, breathing and so on; they have also been creating handwrought pictures since epochs immemorial, as evidenced by the 40,000-year-old cave paintings recently discovered in Borneo, Indonesia.  If the current exhibition is any indication, it is possible to anticipate that artists will continue to keep the genre of painting alive.  Artists paint for many reasons; like Schutz they may believe that they have something to say.  Schutz seems to be angered by the state of contemporary life and she has found a meaningful strategy to make her thoughts and feelings public.  Her voice is being heard.

By Mary Hrbacek, Contributing Writer

Through February 23, 2019

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