The Next Level: Dana Schutz at Transformer Station
Dana Schutz’s solo show of mostly new, mainly huge paintings at Transformer Station, called Eating Atom Bombs, starts off quietly enough. A smaller oil painting hung near the entrance, Bird in Throat shows an androgynous human head with close-cropped hair, rising from a green t-shirt. The shirt has an odd stripe along the neck-hole. A warm yellow glow in the background, varied with mixed patches of sienna and umber hues, might be the golden sunlight of a late summer day.
It’s quite peaceful—but there’s more. The figure’s cup-shaped mouth is wide open, as if scooping out a patch of sky. The head, depicted in partial profile, is wide-eyed, thrusting upward at an angle not unlike one of the screaming figures in Picasso’s Guernica. Furthermore, the outline of an awkward, sideways object radically deforms the sides of the crew-cut person’s exposed throat. Is that a bird in there—is it a plane? Clearly this is not a painting about the human head, as such. This person may well be eating an atom bomb, in which case that warm yellow in the background would be a nuclear explosion, and the swallower might be a soldier. More than a head, more than a metaphor, and like all ambitious paintings, more than a painting. Even if “bomb” was not Schutz’s original thought when she painted this canvas in 2010, it’s a bomb now.
It took me a few days of referring to a snapshot of Bird in Throat in my phone to see the obvious, but I finally got it. Later, on the phone to New York, Schutz laughed at me, or should have. Still, I’m pretty sure there are no decoder rings for her paintings, no definitive interpretations of this artist’s deliberately ambiguous, often explosive images. She can be counted on to stir together emotion with art history, personal pain with visual, sensual pleasures, and passages of hilarity. But themes as such are only elements in the design, adding areas of moral focus as she reacts to and reassembles the shifting concerns and bloody-minded nonsense of American Culture (such as it is), right now, and all our half-told stories, twice-told lies.
Since her graduation from Cleveland Institute of Art in 2000, and afterwards from Columbia University’s grad school in 2003, she has managed to render parts of contemporary (and perennial) experience that just about anyone can recognize, from Steve Jobs to Steve Bannon, keyboards to cell phones, Survivor to Lost, imaginary friends to crushable rock stars, bodily fluids to babies—and followed these to their limits. The urgency of her compositions, their swirling motion and crowded imagery, the assurance of her broad strokes, the insouciance of her quick, confident delineation: those add up to more than the sum of their parts in a Dana Schutz painting. She both critiques and transcends judgement (well, judgy-ness at least) like an exhausted parent or crazy older sibling. Her paintings may scare you with their drama, yet you want to climb up into them. They’re unconditional, a rare but essential quality for a work of art.
Proceeding counter-clockwise around Transformer Station’s huge box, the next picture at Eating Atom Bombs, is a 2017 doozy titled Self-Exam. Schutz excels at depicting herself, as well as others, caught in awkward moments and situations, particularly ones that involve turning oneself inside-out. At 7.5′/7.5′, Self-Exam is bigger than some. It shows a woman, shattered into limbs and planes in a quasi-cubist way, jammed into a small bathroom. Her right foot is on the toilet seat, her white undershirt is scrunched up on her shoulders, her bare bottom is pressed against a doorknob. In her right hand she grips the handle of an oval mirror. That mirror reflects another long rectangular reflective surface, leaning under her, steadied by her left arm. An eye and a mouth are visible in both, reflected from yet another long mirror that hangs above her. Her face, half in shadow and stressed from these contortionist’s moves, is pointed up and forward, and she looks with large, cartoon-like blue eyes at the mirror above her. It’s not a happy picture, but it stops short of giving a reason for its misery. An odd detail is striking—her mouth is missing from the strange half-moon of face, swallowed by mirrors.
Big paintings carry on around the room, striking chords of intimacy and public shame, irrational fury and biblical suffering. Times are tough, no doubt about it, whether in the painter’s life or ours, on the public stage or rolling sonorously in the depths of history. All the way across the room is a work huge by any standards at 10′/14′ (at least), titled Deposition, which is a title that carries the whole weight of Christian iconography. “Deposition” is the technical term for the descent of Christ from the cross, following the crucifixion. It also means “to put down,” and of course is the legal term for written testimony. Schutz’s image here centers on a battered politician, identifiable only by his drooping red power necktie. A crowd of dark figures bear him on their shoulders, like mourners in a mosh pit. (Dana says of the various persons in her paintings at the current show, “they changed as I was going along, maybe their subjects started to be more sympathetic to each other. The crowd [in Deposition] became ambivalent…”). This crowd must be wading in shallow waters, though deep enough for a multitude of sharks to infest, baring their teeth. On the right, one member of the mourning lynch mob nibbles slyly on the fallen idol’s rolled up shirt sleeve, as if to find out what the fuss is all about. If you know your art history it’s like Philip Guston channeling Goya, and much else. When the New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins wrote an article about Schutz for the pages of that journal last April, he quoted MoMA Chief Curator at Large Klaus Biesenbach, who at the very beginning of Schutz’s career (in 2001) observed that she “bridges the cartoonist and the social realist.” She still does, again and again in her new paintings, both those being seen for the first time in the Cleveland show and others here that have been seen elsewhere over the past year, in her solo show at the ICA in Boston and at the Whitney Biennial.
There are so many things these paintings do. They short-circuit the logic of narration with a series of refusals, rejecting any real story development, making fun of absurdity, and finally even turning their backs on humor; she’s left with something more like life as it is lived, rather than as it is retold. In their way they’re singularly naked, both embarrassed and unashamed, or possibly the other way around. They are very brave. If they say anything at all definite, it has to do with what it’s like to feel too much at a time when there’s too much to feel. However interested in subjectivity and types of self-awareness she may be, Schutz is anything but self-conscious. In person and on the international stage she is what she is, a forthrightly human (if alarmingly productive), sleep-deprived, still-young mother of two small children. It’s daunting to consider that her youngest was actually born this past year, in the midst of a sometimes-vicious controversy surrounding one of her paintings included in the Whitney Biennial exhibition, and right in the middle of making several of the powerful paintings on view in Cleveland. These circumstances find their way into the works, not least because Schutz is such a bridge builder, and in her painter’s way a tearer-down of walls, as she fights towards the truths that paintings can carry.
The most recent painting in the show at Transformer Station is simply titled Bat. It’s small by Schutz standards and doesn’t involve multiple viewpoints or bravura compositional feats: a woman stares out at us, with bloodshot, traumatized deep green eyes. Cutting horizontally across the face, obliterating the nose, is a curious trench, laid down physically in the paint. Wall commentary for the work reads, “It appears that the subject and the painting have both been struck by a bat.” The text also says that the work shows “a woman,” but I don’t know. The figure is bald, with cracks and (I think) rivets in the skull and longish brown hair scrubbed down to the shoulders. The mouth is a cartoon-style grimace, with lots of teeth. Frankenstein’s monster comes to mind, and I’m reminded of Picasso’s very last known self-portrait, where he looks old and worn-out, shell-shocked by long life and, perhaps, endless self-regarding, brutalized by age added to the mirrors of fame and the reverb of fame’s sometimes ugly feedback. It’s not a pretty picture, and neither is this one, but both are powerful and say something true, even if it’s not the only truth. Both Dana and staff at Transformer Station tell stories about how this painting was still very wet when it got to the museum, requiring some touch-up work as opening night loomed. The truth of this is borne out by a neat little white fence that has been installed on the floor in front of it, meant to keep visitors safe from the painting, rather than the other way around. Maybe they should all have little fences, given the tendency of Schutz paintings to rampage and transgress. Cleveland is very fortunate to have this show, at this moment in the artist’s life and career. The Livonia, Michigan, native spent five years here. Her affection for the city, and for its art and arts community, is a gift of great value.
Dana Schutz: Eating Atom Bombs is on view at Transformer Station January 20 through April 15, 2018. Transformer Station is at 1460 West 29 Street, Cleveland.