Artists Retrospective

‘What If People Could Eat Themselves?’: Dana Schutz on Her Macabre Paintings, in 2007

Dana Schutz, Assembling an Octopus, 2013, oil on canvas. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK

Dana Schutz, Assembling an Octopus, 2013, oil on canvas.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK

In Dana Schutz’s new show at Petzel, titled “Fight in an Elevator,” Solange Knowles and Jay Z have an altercation, a toothy monster eats a person, and a sleepwalker wearing an Adidas shirt stumbles out of bed. As Schutz explained in Steven Litt’s profile from ARTnews’s May 2007 issue, these are all the result of “what if” situations. What if the 2004 U.S. presidential and vice-presidential candidates went on a retreat together? What if a child could eat his or her hand? What if a bunch of bathers could put together an octopus? Schutz then translates these questions to her colorful, modernist-inspired canvases, which are simultaneously perplexing, menacing, and hypnotic. In honor of Schutz’s current Petzel show, Litt’s 2007 profile follows below.—Alex Greenberger

‘What If People Could Eat Themselves?’
By Steven Litt

Dana Schutz depicts macabre scenarios—a figure devouring her hand, a plague victim in a hospital ward, the last man on earth—in enticing colors and lush textures

Dana Schutz hates constraints. In her world, people eat themselves and reconfigure their bodies. She imagines what Michael Jackson’s autopsy might look like and envisions a happy dog without a head. In one self-portrait, she gave her face the thick, gray, wrinkled skin of an elephant.

“They always start with very simple ‘what if’ situations,” she says of her paintings. “What if people could eat themselves? It’s something very simple.” Weird as her ideas might sound she insists they are not flights of fancy. Instead, she says, they are “things that could exist in the public imagination.”

Schutz’s paintings have earned rave reviews, high prices, and major exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic. They combine whimsically bizarre imagery with fluent brush-strokes and a palette that ranges from bright, juicy colors to bilious hues that evoke rot, decay, and poison.

“I never want subject matter to be shut down,” Schutz says. “If you really want to paint something, that’s the best reason to make an image of it.” Her most recent paintings, on view at New York’s Zach Feuer Gallery through the 19th of this month, were inspired by hypothetical situations. One image, How We Would Give Birth, depicts an infant emerging from the birth canal onto bloody sheets as the mother gazes sideways at an Albert Bierstadt–like landscape painting portraying a waterfall in the Rocky Mountains. “It’s her focus object in the room,” Schutz explains, drolly suggesting that art appreciation can provide an out-of-body experience under the most extreme of circumstances.

Dana Schutz, Sleepwalker, 2015, oil on canvas. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK

Dana Schutz, Sleepwalker, 2015, oil on canvas.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK

Another new work, How We Cured the Plague, shows a vast hospital clinic in which a naked man, his body covered with goiters, stands on a pedestal, arms extended like Christ on the cross, while doctors in white coats give him a blood transfusion by connecting his body with thick, flexible tubes to the corpse of a shark. Schutz says she imagined the scene as something that happened in the past or could happen in the future. “You can’t get out of the room, so you have to find a cure for the plague in the room,” she explains.

A 30-year-old native of Livonia, Michigan, a suburb between Detroit and Ann Arbor, Schutz lives and works in an industrial section of Brooklyn near the Gowanus Canal. She quickly became one of the most acclaimed young artists in New York after completing Columbia University’s M.F.A. program in 2002. She had a solo show that year at Manhattan’s LFL (which later became Zach Feuer Gallery) and exhibited at the Venice Biennale and the Prague Biennale in 2003. She was included in P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center’s “Greater New York” exhibition in 2005. As an undergraduate in Cleveland, she sold paintings to her friends for as little as $200. Now some of her paintings sell for well into the mid-five figures.

Last year Raphaela Platow, chief curator of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, organized a traveling survey of nearly four dozen paintings by Schutz. Among them were portraits of “Frank,” a fictional character envisioned by Schutz as the last man on earth. Other paintings imagine Mussolini and Stalin fishing on a dark lake in a small boat under branches laden with autumn foliage, and a strange male-bonding retreat in which Bill Gates and a group of other corporate moguls march through the woods half-naked pounding on drums. In the painting Party (2004), George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice, among other political figures, are represented in a confused scrum, tangled with cables and microphones. And there were plenty of paintings of the self-eaters, including Devourer (2004), showing a cartoonish figure in profile greedily thrusting her fingers into her huge open mouth.

Platow declares, “These are not nice pictures. Look at the self-eaters—they’re horrifying. They draw you in with beautiful colors and tactile surfaces, and then at the second glance you realize what’s going on. It’s shocking, awkward, eerie, uncomfortable, and bizarre.” Yet Platow believes Schutz’s work touches a nerve because it addresses political and social issues through the lens of fantasy and is, at the same time, visually lush. She describes Schutz’s art as an unusual fusion of the conceptual and the painterly: “She comes up with these inventive stories, almost instructions she develops for herself, but the work itself looks very expressive and gestural.”

Dana Schutz, Shaking Out the Bed, oil on canvas. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK

Dana Schutz, Shaking Out the Bed, oil on canvas.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK

Financial success and media attention—not to mention the undercurrent of skepticism and envy that has swirled around Schutz’s achievements—are the last things the artist wants to discuss. “It’s one of those things that if you really think about to too much, it can freak you out and get in the way of what’s really important, which is making art,” she says.

Some observers believe that an early influx of attention from wealthy collectors can be risky, if not unhealthy, for an artist’s career. For instance, Robert Storr, dean of Yale University School of Art, worries about the effect it could have on Schutz. “I’m watching her with interest, but I’m a little worried, too,” he says. “I think she’s enormously talented, and she clearly has stamina. But she’s a very good example of someone who might find too much too soon a problem. She has a style. The question is whether the art will become more complicated or locked into that style.”

Schutz appreciates Storr’s concern, but says that in general such comments don’t fluster her. “People can be skeptical or whatever they want to be, but that has nothing to do with what you’re making in the studio,” she explains. She does, however, admit to being grateful for the opportunities afforded by her early success and is pleased to have been able to lease 1,000 square feet of industrial loft space in a building she renovated with friends into eight interconnected studios. Before moving to New York, she says, “I had always assumed I would probably rent out storage space and live in it or something.”

Working in a large studio with colleagues nearby gives Schutz a sense of community. “I like working around other people,” she says. “You don’t end up stewing about yourself all day. Opinions from people you trust and admire—your peers—are so important. It’s a way to keep perspective.

In person, Schutz, in jeans, beat-up sneakers, and a hooded sweatshirt, is striking, with a lanky body, high, chiseled cheekbones, deep-set eyes, and tousled, curly brown hair.

She started thinking seriously about becoming an artist when she was in the eight grade in Michigan, having been inspired by her mother, a junior-high-school art teacher. Schutz’s parents allowed her to take over a section of the basement, which she soon filled by painting on any flat surface she could get to, including ceiling tiles and pieces of discarded Sheetrock.

Dana Schutz, Slow Motion Shower, 2015, oil on canvas. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK

Dana Schutz, Slow Motion Shower, 2015, oil on canvas.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK

“It was the perfect thing,” she says. “You could go and be alone in the basement. It’s what most teenagers want. My mother bought home some paints from school and she just left me alone.” Schutz enjoyed the complete sense of freedom she felt. “I liked how you could be in control of what you were putting down and making, and there was no one else to blame but you.”

At the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she earned her B.F.A. in 2000, Schutz says, she was heavily influenced by the school’s faculty as well as by her visits to the Cleveland Museum of Art, which was right across the street. She remembers being awed by Picasso’s Blue Period masterpiece La Vie, and by paintings by Alex Katz, Gerhard Richter, and Anselm Kiefer.

When she entered graduate school at Columbia, Schutz says, she assumed she would make “pale and minimalist” sculptures because “that was what I thought graduate-school art would look like.” At first, she says, “I was looking at Luc Tuymans, with a very subdued palette,” and was making works with color “that was almost washed away.” Her fear of bright, vibrant color actually compelled her to move in that direction. “To do something high-keyed was uncomfortable, but I became very interested in that. What would it be like to make a really saturated painting? Why not try it?”

Schutz also felt drawn to violence and death. She based one of her paintings on the film The Perfect Storm, about a commercial deep-sea fishing crew whose boat is hit by a rogue wave killing them all. “I was trying to imagine the last thing you see before you die,” she says. “What if you jumped on the subway tracks,” for example, “or opened the fridge and had a heart attack?”

Such musings led to Schutz’s first extended series of paintings at Columbia, which she based on imaginary lovers that she envisioned for her friends. “At the end of the year, everyone had exhausted the potential of hooking up, and everyone was single,” Schutz relates. “So I imagined a lover for a friend named Susan. The initial visualization was that he was shy, redheaded, and balding—a kind of stay-at-home person. But he ended up being too clingy or something, and kind of a heavy breather.”

Schutz’s fantasies soon evolved into a methodology she could use to create series of paintings based on a narrative concept or a hypothetical question. This led her to the idea of portraying Frank. “I killed him right away,” she says, “because you could do anything.” She painted her subject’s dismembered body hanging in a cargo net suspended in front of a blazing tropical sunset. Then, she realized, “he could come back. There was no beginning and no end” to his story. At one point, she decided to take apart his body and make two women out of him.

Soon after, while she was living in Harlem, Schutz started making doodles of the self-eaters. “They were very private,” she says. “I didn’t think they were going to be like work. But then I became interested in them more.” The self-eaters quickly became one of Schutz’s major concerns and contributed in a big way to her success.

Dana Schutz, Swiss Family Traveling, 2015, oil on canvas. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK.

Dana Schutz, Swiss Family Traveling, 2015, oil on canvas.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND PETZEL, NEW YORK

These days, in Brooklyn, she sometimes paints through the night; other times, she maintains a 10 A.M. to 7 P.M. schedule with a break for lunch. She often gets ideas by trolling the Internet, and that accounts for the topical flavor of some of her paintings. In one self-portrait, Schutz depicted herself in a chaotic corner of her studio, hunched over a computer screen amid crumpled paper cups, a bowl of pennies, and a spilled flowerpot, Googling her way from one Web site to another.

Last year she married a Columbia classmate, sculptor Ryan Johnson. They now live in a semidetached duplex a block away from the studio building they share. The couple honeymooned in the Hudson valley, camping out and looking for swimming holes, an exploration Schutz admits was a failure. They ended up splashing in a Quality Inn pool. When they’re not working, she and Johnson go to the movies, attend concerts, or read. With an almost apologetic tone, she says, “It’s really boring.”

Given the heavily built-up surfaces of her work, it is surprising that, while painting, Schutz does not think about the medium itself. “I don’t want my paintings to be about the physical substance of the paint,” she says. “I think about what I want the image to be.

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