The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue

DANA SCHUTZ Drawings & Prints

On View
Atlanta Contemporary Art Center
January 7 – March 20, 2011

Each figure is doing something absurd, impossible, and mundane, simultaneously swimming, smoking, and crying; using his front teeth as a wood chipper or plane; sleeping comfortably under a pile of coffin-like shapes (an inversion of the princess and the pea); talking on the phone while neatly cutting one’s eyelashes without blinking. These actions directly affect the state of one’s body, the immediate environment, or both. An adolescent girl determinedly attempts to make a drawing of an eye. She is trying to see for herself, and wants to register this act by accurately depicting what she sees with, the eyes in her own head. There are those who believe that seeing with one’s own eyes can no longer be done, and that to even consider the possibility is at best a Romantic gesture, a dead end. Dana Schutz is definitely not one of them. The herd of individual minds is not for her.

This doesn’t mean that Schutz is trying to be original or forge a style by which she brands her work, both of which are rather tiresome, if not exhausted strategies. And while this may not be apparent to some when it comes to her paintings, it does become clear in her drawings and prints, where Schutz channels as well as bends to her own purpose artists as diverse as Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Max Beckmann, late Picasso, and others. In fact, thinking about her ink and conté crayon drawing “Eyelashes” (2010), and its possible dialogue with late Picasso, I looked up a drawing I saw nearly 30 years ago, at an exhibition in the Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA). In the frontal, black and white crayon drawing, “Self-Portrait” (1972), Picasso uncharacteristically confronts his own mortality by depicting his face as a skull with the familiar shock of hair above his left eyebrow missing. Schutz used a triangle and a pentagram to outline each sunken eye, while Picasso used an almond-shaped outline and an incomplete pentagram. The eyelashes in need of trimming remind us that hair keeps growing even after one has died. Allegorizing “Eyelashes”, we might conclude that painting’s corpse is still fertile ground for the intrepid artist, of which Schutz is surely one.

Just to be clear, channeling is not citation, and Schutz’s intention is neither to parody another artist nor to charm the viewer with carefully placed little speed bumps (exaggerations or defacing). Philosophically and ethically speaking, she is about as far from George Condo (and his penchant for cuteness) as you can get, and still live on the same planet. (Her work would hold its own in an exhibition of drawings of heads that included Philip Guston and Peter Saul, whereas Condo’s heads would look silly, at best.)

Schutz’s drawings begin in abstraction—a gouache band or ovoid stain, a thick or thin line in ink and dry brush, a stained field of black dots. Each linear addition brings further definition until finally a figure emerges. I suspect that Schutz devotes a considerable amount of her studio practice to drawing (it certainly is not a sideline activity), and that it is there that she discovers as well as works out possibilities, including those for her paintings.

In the ink and gouache drawing, “Swim, Smoke, Cry #2”(2010), I found myself asking, is the head pulling the body through the water or is the body pushing the head forward? This, of course, is both a philosophical dilemma (the mind-body problem) and a painter’s issue. Does one make art with the hand, the mind, or both? Schutz believes it is both, while recognizing the awkward dance that takes place between the hand and mind. As her work suggests, she recognizes that the deluge has already happened, and that we exist precariously in both its aftermath and its continued unfolding. We are already immersed in the water, and we will never escape its clutches. In this continuous state of eruptions and aftershocks large and small, the artist’s task is rather ridiculous. After all, what can you show the viewer that can help him or her cope with the disaster of being born? 

You can stare down at your helpless, aging body and bleed, as Guston did in the painting “Head and Bottle” (1975); examine your brain while announcing, “IT LOOKS LIKE MY LOUSY BRAIN DOESN’T HAVE ITS SHARE OF I.Q.” as Peter Saul does in his painting “My Lousy Brain” (2008); or try and tell someone under 30 what it was like to stand in a dirty telephone booth and talk to someone you cannot see, as Schutz does in her ink drawing, “How We Would Talk” (2007). If it is impossible to communicate to someone what it was like to use a telephone booth (essentially choosing to be publicly isolated from the world in order to talk to someone), what does it mean to be an artist who spends long periods of time alone in a studio?

The impossible, humiliating tasks one takes on—this is what any serious, ambitious artist does everyday. Schutz’s drawings are not the byproduct of a process. They are awkward and graceful, eloquent and flat-footed. They brim with humor and bathos. To her credit, she has neither aimed for a style nor derived her vocabulary from pop culture and the mass media, thus giving them power over her. Considered one of the best painters of her generation, she is capable of being more than that. The drawings will be instrumental in getting her there.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

All Issues