Dana Schutz

Imagine Me and You,” the title of Dana Schutz’s recent solo exhibition at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York, is in itself a strange and suggestive aspect of the artwork in the show. It’s apparently a line borrowed from a 1960s pop tune by the Turtles (as in “so happy together!”). But its placement here turns the idea inside out and asks us to do a number of imaginatively multivalent things at once, like in one of Schutz’s impossible multitasking paintings from several years back. Even if a simple explanation lies behind this authorial decision, the complexities it spawns won’t de-proliferate. Who are these “me and you”? “Me and you” can be read as Schutz herself speaking to “I” the viewer, but just as easily as characters in the paintings talking to one another, or the paintings themselves doing so intertextually, and more. This broad range of implied questioning of agencies and identities is subtly phased into our brains as one of the outcomes of looking at the work, positioning us as both the rhetorically mutable as well as the literal viewers in a richly destabilizing conceptual move. Compellingly obscure wordplay is going on, which translates into visual ironies, which hold together the way an emotive singer slurs words or garbles lines but still powerfully renders the song—because of the delivery, not in spite of it.

Dana Schutz, Painting in an Earthquake, 2018, oil on canvas, 94 x 87.75 inches. All photos: Jason Mandella. Images courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York.

On top of the cognitively dense, allusive image and thought play is the fact that the show registers as Schutz’s most emotional in a long time, and maybe ever. Many of the works are charged with mental and physical torment and frayed psychological moving parts. Like the non-resembling woman in the show’s forceful opener, Painting in an Earthquake, the nervy, running-in-place fishlike figure in Treadmill might be a masked and hilariously sent-up sort of self-portrait. The painting successfully visualizes the normal urban rigmarole of going to the gym as a parable of (funny) Sisyphean intensity, with eponymous treadmill, earphones, towel and flying sweat as accoutrements in place of a boulder. Exceptionally fine-tuned as a composition, it depicts stasis and movement in a circular feedback loop on several levels. The painting Strangers is a bizarre but affecting scene in which two odd goblins— who nominally may not know one another but are nonetheless intimate—seem to be beating a hasty retreat from a dangerous and unsavoury place, somewhere. One is shielding the other in a protective but still frightened way. There are shades here of Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot, the two tramps who just can’t win but also can’t leave, wistfully expecting a quasi-apocalyptic end. Pictorially here, too, composition and colour combine to moving effect. Mountain Group is one of Schutz’s giant canvases, a 10 x 13– foot piece in which a motley group of figures has ascended a mountain and appears to be feeling the effects and suffering the consequences. It has a tough but lyrical atmosphere to it though, from the face-down, weeping woman, to the vomiting bird, to the Nixon double-peace-sign-flashing, bearded muppet-man who waves at us in pyrrhic triumph.

Installation view, “Imagine Me and You,” 2019, Petzel, New York.

In spite of all of the narrative ambiguities and questions that the show opens up, the formal clarity and strength of the work are evident. Visually it’s a very pleasurable, poignant grouping, featuring Schutz’s expressive and painterly canvases, as well as her first foray into exhibiting sculptures. The five bronzes she included are all as stylistically characteristic as the paintings, as though she had always been doing this. Modelled in clay and then cast, and reading like petrified 3D impastos in grey oil paint, the works have all the energy and personality of the paintings. The two versions of Washing Monsters—one a painting and the other a sculpture—allow a new kind of access into how Schutz plays with content and meaning. Like a skilful theatre actor playing the same part differently on separate occasions, she alters little aspects of her composition and content to get a strong contrast from the two pieces as well as a sibling closeness. The sculptural version is more fearsome and angsty, with a monster that seems to be powerful and barely containing its violent propensities, while the painting displays a washer who is more concerned with something else creeping up behind than the easygoing skull-headed demon he’s in the act of buffing and towelling off, washing sponge already on the ground.

Installation view, “Imagine Me and You,” 2019, Petzel, New York. “ 60028txt.

In one sense there is more continuance than breakage in Schutz’s production here. She has always been, and continues to be, mostly interested in semi-narrative figure painting, via a strong frontal visual attack and a slower, surprising kind of construction of meaning in the content. To do this, she uses both conceptual and expressive avenues equally. She invents worlds with rules different from but related to ours, in both the social and natural senses, while sometimes depicting real subjects and sometimes not. This has allowed her a species of maximum invention while staying in contact with our world, grounded in serious commentary as well as depicting an occasionally nightmarish dreamscape or totally imaginary non sequitur. She has taken real risks, it feels fair to say. These paintings and sculptures in “Imagine Me and You,” like most of her work, have sad, creepy, spooky, weird, uncomfortable and grotesque aspects. But they also register with a certain gentleness, an empathy towards what is happening in them, which radiates out to the viewer and which her work habitually possesses. Even when she shows us something violent, or potentially so, no matter how terrible it is, she is also showing us something redemptive.

“Imagine Me and You” was exhibited at Petzel, New York, from January 10 to February 23, 2019.

Benjamin Klein is an artist, writer and independent curator living and working in Montreal and Brooklyn.