Dana Schutz’s New Paintings Just Might Be Her Best | Modern Society of USA

Dana Schutz’s New Paintings Just Might Be Her Best

Dana Schutz’s New Paintings Just Might Be Her Best

Dana Schutz’s current show at Petzel Gallery is her best in New York in a while, maybe ever.

She has loaded up her brush again, thickening her paint, and has minimized her settings. Gone are the thin surfaces and sharp-edged shapes that could make her recent works feel brittle and too cartoony. Her protagonists have gained weight and substance, and appear to be isolated in bleak empty spaces that feel mythic or postapocalyptic. Several scenes are set on large lonely rocks like those loved by Homeric poets and Symbolist painters.

With her paint surfaces sometimes verging on low relief, it is unsurprising that, for the first time, Ms. Schutz is also exhibiting sculpture, a frequent subject in her paintings: five bronzes of her characteristically gnarly figures whose crazed textures amaze and will surely feed back into her painting.

Two years ago, Ms. Schutz was at the center of a firestorm ignited by “Open Casket,” one of her paintings in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. The work was based on photographs of the battered corpse of Emmett Till, the teenager who was tortured and murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. Till’s mother insisted that his body be seen and photographed so the world would know what had befallen him, and the resulting images helped ignite the civil rights movement.

For many the pain and importance of the images made them inappropriate for art-making, especially by a white artist. Arguably another artist, regardless of race, might have done justice to the Till images, but not one with Ms. Schutz’s comic-grotesque vision and penchant for conflating heroes and villains. As might be expected, given the frequent autobiographical nature of Ms. Schutz’s work, several of the new paintings evoke moments of crisis, humiliation, penance and possible redemption that seem related to her recent experience.

Humiliation is especially wrenching in “Presenter,” where we find a female figure with her panties around her ankles. As pointed out by a painter friend I ran into at Petzel, she holds a corded clicker in one hand while standing in a spotlight (lusciously painted red) and seems to pull something — maybe words — from her mouth with her other, much larger, blood-flecked hand. In the black background you can make out the lower edges of three red letters T-E-D, as in TED Talks.

“Mountain Group,” the show’s largest painting, depicts a monumental peak crawling with people, including a man with an orange comb-over who might be Guston. But the scrum also includes four versions of the artist, including one of her lying on her face, weeping, and another who is painting an unpeopled view of mountains while standing in a hole in the ground (she’s starting from behind).

The rest of the show bounces between the personal and the political. The macabre “Washing Monsters” may comment on the challenge of motherhood without resorting to using women or children. In “Beat Out the Sun,” a motley crew of warriors marches on the sun, their torsos overlapping à la Egyptian reliefs, as if beating out the source of all life is the fastest, stupidest way to destroy our planet, if not the solar system.

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