Monster’s Ball
Dana Schutz @ MOCA

Over the past half decade the artist Dana Schutz has experienced the sort of dazzling rise
to international fame usually reserved for the very hottest actors, musicians, and basket
ball players. The February 2006 issue of Vogue, for instance, featured a six page spread
that clued in the monthly fashion epistle’s national readership to Dana and her work; the
article was headlined Great Dana. For a painter, that’s pretty snazzy. It just doesn’t
happen that a young artist from Livonia, MI goes off to grad school in New York and
emerges with the name recognition of, if not Scarlett or Lebron, then something pretty
darn close.

Maybe the oddest aspect of the whole phenomenon is the fact that she’s good enough to
deserve it. Outrageously facile even as a student in the late 1990’s at the Cleveland
Institute of Art, Shutz continues to challenge herself and her gifts, sometimes stumbling in
the process but usually ending up not only on her feet, but poised, with a gymnast’s
improbable grace, at the brink of new perception. She is by any standard a painter’s
painter, dabbling simultaneously in techniques that embrace representation and
abstraction, swinging from smooth to rough, gooey to overdone, all with the drop-dead
aplomb of a Sunday commix Caravaggio.

Indeed the influences visible in a given work can be a crash course in the history of
figurative and narrative painting. Contemporary painter Laura Owens’ starving-artist, faux
minimalist manner, for instance, might come to mind as one source for Schutz’ 2002 Night
in Day, which seems to depict an essentially indescribable object placed in a sort of
landscape. It takes up where Philip Guston’s late paintings leave off, constituting a brief
visual essay on what it means to make a painting.

The painterly calculus sketched by Guston started with the homespun realities of paint as
material, moving immediately and shockingly to a weird mixture of politics and reverie – to
the politics of dreaming. Schutz is up to something similar. But where Guston fixates on
certain images and vernaculars – clunky shoes and Ku Klux Klan hoods rendered in a
flatfooted thick black line– Schutz skips from paint to half-formulated narratives. The
images almost don’t matter, and if she wasn’t so very good with paint, there often wouldn’t
be much to look at. Since she is so agile, a growing list of propositions is made to the
mind and eye. In Night in Day this has to do with the fact that an object seems to be
represented in very concrete terms, somewhat in the manner of Guston, or Owens, or like
a crunchier version of some background object in George Herriman’s classic Crazy Kat;
and yet it has no identifiable function or provenance. It sits in the middle of nowhere
(maybe on a beach), and there’s a strip of night sky at the upper left. In other words, a
painting can be whatever it wants to be and persuades the viewer by fiat of substance,
color, and artistic will. It also is nothing of the kind, says nothing, is nothing, is known to be
an illusion at best. Visual persuasiveness in itself  is almost but not quite enough to keep
a Schutz painting on its feet. But where is it going? All of her works flirt with a vanishing
horizon of connectedness. Fortunately she has devised a solution, a bridge over the
chasm of self-referentiality; it could be called the half-assed narrative.

Back in 2001 Schutz began a series of paintings which as usual were all about paint, but
also were about an imaginary boyfriend who she named Frank. The time was not now, the
place not here. Time had ended and Frank was the last man on earth – Dana was the last
painter. As the series went on, Dana kept an eye on Frank as he did desert-island, last
man sorts of stuff, like getting sunburned and building flotsam-based contraptions. Night
in Day probably is one of those, and knowing that story, which is no more a real story
than the object is a real object, nevertheless serves to jumpstart the cognitive energies of
the piece by assigning the whole thing the value of x in an ongoing equation of paint and

Since then Schutz has explored a number of other meta-storyboard scenarios, sampled
by the sixteen large and small paintings on view at MOCA. Among the weirdest characters
to date are the self-eaters, in a series that catches them in the act of eating their own
faces, or chests, or arms. As with the Frank paintings, these crackle with the energy
jumping between the vivid, almost palpable realities (however unreal) their situation
evokes, and questions about what it all means. Above all, Schutz is creating space for
herself, constructing a sense of priority engineered to outflank the chronic poetic malaise
that literary theorist Harold Bloom terms belatedness.

One of Schutz’ early influences, the Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, describes belatedness
as his central dilemma. But where Tuymans’ paintings almost disappear in a misty residue
of anxiety, Schutz is one hundred percent present, asserting the conditions of anxiety –
extremes of abandonment, loathing of various kinds, and dismemberment – as if they
were displays in a theme park. She is the last and first painter, at least in her own world,
and the economy of her paintings is self-sufficient: her subjects can be taken apart and
reassembled from one series to the next, eating themselves, or as it may be, proactively
building themselves a pair of new legs out of gobs of paint, as in the 2003 painting New

More recently Schutz has moved on to tackle political and corporate realities. Ranging up
to 12 by 10 feet in size, the heroic scale of these works declares her ambition to make a
difference in the public sphere in which she finds herself. They also can be very funny.
Schutz’ fey, slightly goofy sense of humor is a saving grace throughout her oeuvre, but in
a painting like Men’s Retreat it’s positively triumphant. Based on accounts of Men’s
Movement-inspired corporate rituals, Schutz imagines Bill Gates and Ted Turner
communing in the undergrowth. It’s like a mild, middle-aged cast version of Lord of the
Flies. Tyco’s deposed CEO Dennis Kozlowski’s floating head haunts the background. The
inspiration is Pieter Bruegel’s sixteenth century masterpiece The Blind Leading the Blind.

In Men’s Retreat, as in the ambitious Surgery hanging next to it at MOCA, Schutz
continues to carve out new territory for her hard-to-categorize approach. Nearby, an
absolutely uncanny work titled Fishing Trip dips even farther into darkly whimsical,
uncharted waters. It shows a lantern-jawed Mussolini somewhere upstream in a small
boat; in the stern sits Stalin, all shadows and evil mesmerism: a vampire. This is
dreaming, with the illogic and amorality of dream, where everything old is new again and
vice versa. In such half-uncoupled fragments of plot and history Schutz rediscovers the
bones of painting, building monster after monster like a gleeful Frankenstein.

    [Free Times 12/6/06]