Creation Anxieties: Dana Schutz at Petzel
Dana Schutz: Fight in an Elevator at Petzel Gallery
September 10 to October 24, 2015
456 W 18th Street (between 9th and 10th avenues)
New York, 212 680 9467
In her exhibition eight years ago at Zach Feuer gallery, Dana Schutz showed a series of “How We Would…” paintings – fantasies of accomplishment or desire. Especially striking was How We Would Give Birth (2007), which depicted a woman on a bed distracting herself by staring at a Hudson River School painting on the wall while a bloody infant struggles to emerge from her open womb. This painting came to mind while confronting twelve huge exuberant paintings (one close to 10 by 20 feet) and four drawings in her present show at Petzel, and realizing all but one were done in the past several months of 2015 after the birth of her child, a little more than a year ago.
While usually her paintings look out at a world gone wild, most of these paintings seem to gaze inward. Schutz’s images have always seemed like proscenia, upon which are enacted the dramatic complexity of her own ambivalent feelings. And in this spirit we might consider the animating engine of her current exhibition to be Post-partum Expression. Whatever her fantasy of parenthood might have been eight years ago, these paintings are the palpable result.
The human-scaled Sleepwalker (2015) in Petzel’s entryway guides us into the exhibit. It displays a person in a yellow t-shirt, hands outstretched zombie-like, having just descended, or ascended, or about to tumble down (the perspective is ambiguous) a long flight of stairs. The vision is reminiscent of those post-childbirth, middle-of-the-night walks to quiet a crying infant: trying to be awake just enough to accomplish the task, yet still able to fall back to sleep afterwards. Ironically, the “Adidas” emblazoned across her chest has its final “s” obscured or missing to become Adida, the past participle of the Spanish verb adir — to accept.
Acceptance of the present moment, of chaos and loss of control, is not only a condition of parenthood, but of painting, as well. Some of these images might seem incoherent at first, but the confusing, fractured, and contradictory points of view of Cubist space, which frustrates stable analysis, seems to have become the ideal tool for Schutz to explore her emotional state.
Lion Eating Its Tamer (2015) introduces us to this ravaged pictorial space where every brushstroke simultaneously creates form and is a form itself. Being consumed by what one is trying to control calls to mind the experience of being physically and emotionally devoured by one’s child, probably every nursing mother’s nightmare. The lion is an implacably ferocious stone idol upon whose altar the tamer has been sacrificed. The various objects contained in this flattened image — a ball, a sperm-like whip, a ring of milky flames, a nipple shaped pedestal, a purple streaked square of paper or diaper, a broken wooden joint and nails — are arranged around the central action like iconographs in a Byzantine Madonna and Child painting. The tamer seems less terrified than resigned or sleep-deprived, engulfed by, or perhaps ejected from, the mouth/womb of the chimeric beast. The drama is staged not in a circus ring but on a trapezoidal examination table under overhead surgical lighting.
A yet more mysterious painting, The Glider (2015) is as bewildering as any Cubist Pablo Picasso, and at first the central female’s face seems pulled from one of his paintings. Learning that this glider is not an airborne one, but the term for a reclining nursing chair clarifies the image. The wood chair, the red infant, elongated funnel breasts (there seems to be four), and various glasses with water and straws create a private moment that we share. The Picassoid face of the nursing mother, as fractured as it may seem, expresses a specific emotion somewhere between shock and ecstasy, and locates a head that is leaning back and seen from below, which would be the nursing infant’s point of view, and becomes our own, pulling us into this intimate experience.
This sense of introspection and privacy, despite the manic energy of their execution, extends even to the two titular paintings of the show with their metaphors of a brawl in the enclosed space of an elevator. The calm abstractions of flat brushed metal doors, either opening or closing like curtains on the intense energy of wildly painted forms at the center, separate us from the drama. The chaotic confrontations of a contained world are in the process of being concealed or revealed to our isolated view. The quite wonderful Slow Motion Shower far from a salacious view of a naked female bather offers a hunched over, multi-armed and possibly weeping Shiva, whose tears blend with the shower spray and conveys the feeling of a retreat from the demands of human contact and the one place to find solitude and release.
The immense Shaking Out the Bed (2015) in the last room depicts not only a locus of pleasure and conception (certainly not sleep here) but also a fraught arena for any new family. Initially so chaotic seeming, the painting slowly reveals how Schutz has structured this boudoir explosion.
Several different points of view here have been woven together. Seen frontally the stable entry point into this eruption, at the center bottom, is the dark surface of a night table. Upon it rests an ominous hammer, a water glass, a crumpled paper, and a giant cockroach. Anchoring the right side of the painting is the flat top of a headboard seen from above, displaying four ornamental ceramic pots. The upper part of the painting is held in place by a lamp on a blond night table, drawer expressionistically askew, and on the left side, looking down past the foot of the bed is a laundry basket possibly containing soiled diapers.
The “shaking out” of the title occurs in the center of the painting where coins, newspaper and pizza slice fly out at us like a big bang. Bang might be the operative word as it is generated by two figures caught in coitus, as evinced by their straining appendages and bare buttocks, and the concentrated expressions of their giant Philip Guston-like heads pressed intimately together, trying unsuccessfully not to disturb the diapered infant at the foot of the bed. Mostly we are looking down on this scene, which throws us into the air as well.
Schutz emphasizes how personally significant this painting must be for her, not only through the scale and the intimacy of the activity, but in the specificity of markers around the edge: the stack of Self magazines under the bed, the calendar page in one corner showing the date June 27, and the digital clock in another revealing the time to be 12:31.
Evident here is the influence of other artists who have explored the metaphoric significance of family experience, whether Guston, Elizabeth Murray, Nicole Eisenman or Judith Linhares, each in entirely different ways. But the boldness and fearlessness of Schutz’s approach, her constant risky experimentation with both form and subject matter, and an almost desperate desire to get to the bottom of her feelings through paint, reveal her, to my mind, as one of the great painters of our time. Julian Schnabel once bragged that he was the closest thing to Picasso we were going to get in our lifetime, but he’s now been pushed aside.