I was unexpectedly reminded of the wonderfully irreverent filmmaker Seijun Suzuki while looking at Dana Schutz’s painting, “Slow Motion Shower” (2015), which is included in her current exhibition, Fight in an Elevator, at Petzel (September 10–October 24, 2015). In his landmark film Branded to Kill (1967), Suzuki found ingenious ways to simultaneously subvert and call attention to Japanese censorship, which forbade nudity. In “Slow Motion Shower,” Schutz depicts a cloud of molar-shaped soapsuds over the figure’s genitals, which are located just below the center of the painting. The soapsuds help obscure whether the figure is male or female, which makes the painting funny and to the point in a world obsessed with defining gender.
The indeterminate figure is standing in front of a green and turquoise-colored shower curtain, which includes in its lower right hand corner, the image of water spewing from a faucet. Is the faucet an illusion? If so, where is the one that poured water into the bathtub in which the figure is standing? The shower curtain underscores the painting’s two-dimensional surface — its flatness, as they used to say back in the 1960s — while the rim of the tub tilting slightly towards the picture plane introduces a spatial dimension. These contradictions and elisions lie at the heart of Schutz’s pictorial mastery. She acknowledges the historical pressure to make paintings that are flat and frontal by both subverting and calling attention to these presumptions. None of it feels contrived. Rather, she pokes fun at the absurdity of this historical moment and its myriad conventions, unspoken and otherwise, regarding the depiction of figures in a claustrophobic, post-cubist space. Her figures don’t fit comfortably into the compressed space in which she places them. They come across as awkward, graceless, cramped in their clothes and skin. The flattened shapes of their sleeves recall Frankenstein’s ungainly stiffness and shirts with far too much starch, while their round faces, with big eyes staring at us, suggest that a madcap looniness has been unleashed upon the world. Schutz’s humor can be wicked and sharp, while also coming across as surprisingly sympathetic and generous.
The title of the show, Fight in an Elevator, refers to the well-publicized altercation involving Beyonce’s sister Solange and Beyonce’s husband Jay Z, when a surveillance video showed her kicking and punching him in an elevator. Schutz transforms this unseemly event into an analogy of the irresolvable tension between two-and three-dimensionality in painting. In the two paintings titled “Fight in an Elevaor” (both dated 2015) included in the exhibition, Solange and Jay Z’s fight becomes a platform for the artist to recognize her desire to create space in a painting, as well as to visibly snub to accept the received views regarding what painting must do.
In the first “Fight in an Elevator,” it is apparent that Schutz identifies with Solange, who is seen kicking and punching the white-suited male (the figure of patriarchal authority). She is in a snit because of all the constraints that have been placed on her. There is an anarchic side to Schutz that she refuses to suppress in order to become decorous, polite and well-mannered. Chaos and order, structure and disorder animate these paintings with an unrivaled vitality.
“Fight in an Elevator” is absurd, self-mocking and full of humor that is simultaneously wicked, good-natured, and satirical. At the same time, don’t be lulled into thinking the humor means that Schutz isn’t serious. The mirrored elevator doors have opened, echoing the curtains pulled back in Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). However, instead of seeing naked women on display, offering their bodies to the viewer, we see a woman in an orange dress furiously punching and kicking a man in a white suit.
Look at the painting closely and you will see that the sharply curved shapes of the dress’s upturned hem and the upside-down reflection of the man’s head in the elevator’s mirrored floor are among Schutz’s many pastiches of (and homages to) Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and the paintings they did between 1907 and 1909, before they initiated what is known as Analytic Cubism. In “Sleepwalker” (2015), a young woman wearing a yellow t-shirt with ADIDA spelled across the front has descends a staircase–shades of Marcel Duchamp–until she bumps into the transparent picture plane (the painting’s surface), which flattens her palms and face. Schutz wears her learning lightly. She doesn’t need to show off or name-drop. She is the opposite of Julian Schnabel. It is also clear that she doesn’t regard the past as a burden, something to be jettisoned or obliterated. This is the lesson she got from Philip Guston.
Instead of aligning her work with the strategies that supposedly define this historical moment — sampling and the death of originality — Schutz began her career by imagining impossible situations, such as a man who has eaten his own face in “Face Eater” (2004). She has depicted obsolete objects, such as telephone booths, reminding us that technology isn’t about progress, but obsolescence, while painting might not be about either. Rather than continuing the legacy of literalism that asserts that paint is just paint, or accepting the repressions connected to this viewpoint, Schutz inverts these constrictions through her imagination as she exposes the prejudices in play.
For Schutz, craft, discovery, ambition, delight, and a sense of the absurd are inseparable strands. She is at her best when she seamlessly merges formal issues with imagined situations through the medium of paint. In recent years, she has added multiple viewpoints and conflicting perspectives into the painting, slowing down our ability to read the images as well as prolonging the pleasure of looking at them, and all their odd and interesting details. In “Lion Eating Its Tamer” (2015), the viewer is apt to wonder why the lion is clutching a piece of blank paper with a stroke of purple paint across it? Meanwhile, the whip still in the grasp of the semi-devoured lion tamer evokes a snake as well as a paintbrush with a flaccid, rope-like handle. All of these additions speak to Schutz’s restlessness as she raises the stakes for herself.
In her last show at Petzel, which was her first with the gallery, she showed the large painting “Building the Boat while Sailing” (2012). A boat with a sail is an analogy for a painting; both are made of wood and canvas. And just as the sail guides the boat towards a new destination, so the stretched canvas promises to transport the viewer to another world. However, as Schutz made evident in this work, painting can no longer carry us to the paradise of Paul Gauguin or Henri Matisse, and perhaps never could.
In this exhibition, the painting “Assembling the Octopus” (2013) continues the theme of building the impossible.
Like the sperm whale that has appeared in a number of works by Jasper Johns, the octopus is a creature whose brain (mind) and body are unified, solving one might say, the mind-body problem. In “Assembling an Octopus,” Schutz depicts a group of art students gathered on a beach. Some are busy drawing the tentacles of the unassembled octopus, while in the upper center of the painting a group seems intent on sewing the parts together. These industrious painters and sculptors seem to have gathered on the beach on a sunny day for the sole purpose of working on an unfeasible project. Might not this impractical situation be true of all the arts, including poetry, music and dance?
One of the joys of “Assembling an Octopus” comes from zeroing in on the different figures, and what they are up to. In the lower half of the painting, just to the right of the center, a boy contemplates a nude woman’s crotch. Her legs are spread apart, but the rest of her is nowhere to be seen. Like the octopus, whose head is conspicuously absent from the painting, she is all legs. This incongruous visual rhyme infuses the painting with a distinct current of meaning, and it is far from the only narrative running through the painting. A number of figures are drawing lines of horseshoe-like shapes on their sheets of paper, referring to the suckers on the tentacles, as well as suggesting that art begins in abstraction, not resemblance.
What about the handprints on the back on the bare-chested male kneeling in the painting’s lower left hand corner? Yes, the ocher color suggests they are made of sand, but their shapes also recall cave drawings in the Dordogne region of southern France. How come there seem to be two shark’s teeth lying in the sand between his legs? These and other questions inevitably lead us deeper into the painting, opening up an interior space in which we can reflect upon all the different contradictions and incongruities of daily life that the work raises. The artist’s ability to orchestrate all the different parts of her painting, and to be attentive to each detail, is a pleasure to behold. In this exhibition, Schutz has done more than supersede her earlier work, more than come into her own. She has become a commanding artist that others will have to reckon with.
Fight in an Elevator continues at Petzel Gallery (456 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 24.