Dana Schutz’s recent show at Zach Feuer NY continued to match an expressionist style against whimsical fictions, to merrily chart her engagement with local incident against schematic depiction. Schutz has really only emerged in the past five years and the work trades mainly on a freshness to drawing and brushwork, a high key, festive palette. If this were all, the work would hardly merit attention, but interest lies in just how this mix balances fact against fiction, realism against abstraction.
These issues have tended to lead artists to focus on iconography and genre in recent times, to use painting as a way of detecting and testing broader classes of picture. Rather than start from some supposedly basic set of volumes or ‘forms’, the artist starts from a class of picture, either photography, movie or other print or painting, by subject matter or iconography that cuts across them. This discussion also arises in Posts 5, 6 11 and 15. Genres are not limited to realism or the concrete of course, can include diagram and charts (see also Post 32) and more abstract realms (see also Posts 14 and 28). And obvious genres soon suggest others, finer, more elusive classes, so that how abstract or realistic the picture and what subject or iconography, once more loom as the first and most fraught issue for painting.
In this respect Schutz’s expressionism recalls children’s cartoons or illustration more than say the Neo-Expressionism of the Mulheimer Freiheit Group, who otherwise share a similar casual approach to fiction and metaphor. Schutz’s approach has more in common with Early Hockney or some Amy Sillman, in its autobiography and humour, but prefers vigorous facture to Hockney’s brittle drawing, a cleaner, simpler facture to Sillman’s measured accumulation. Late Guston also covers this ground, but there drawing and brushwork are less diverse. Schutz shares their insouciance, in the way fictive and generic events approach caricature, avoid it by more drastic exaggeration and disruption to picture, as in The Breeders (2002) or Party (2004) or more challenging subject, as in Man Eating His Chest (2005).
But she cannot always maintain the balance. More elaborate anecdote draws her into more realistic depiction, as in Fanatics (2005) or Telepathy (2006) and the results strain brio and brushwork, look perhaps laboured or banal, cannot quite identify genre. On the other hand, more abstract works, such as Cleveland (2007) or Abstract Model (2007) achieve no more than caricature or parody, as yet signal only an avenue of interest. On this score, comparison with Sillman is especially useful. Sillman’s work has tended to drift toward the abstract, plots figures in schematic form against elemental furniture, volume or perspective. She directs abstraction to this circumstance, it often becomes about the figure surrendered in this way or the space, rather than a more general model, such as Cleveland.
Other works by Schutz combine elements of both, as in How We Would Dance (2007) or Male Model (2007) but all three options show the actual scope of the project, a deceptive method to Schutz’s merriment. So far however, the work looks stronger for remaining closer to Sesame Street say, than less certain, if more sophisticated genres, to iconic figures, literally in the process of deconstruction, such as Face Eater (2004) Self Eater (2003) New Legs (2003) or Twin Parts (2004) rather than more ambitious groupings or social comment.
The theme is clearly a favourite with the artist. It might stand as a metaphor for the artist’s reliance upon autobiographical incident to feed her painting, or more generally, the relentless scavenging from other pictures in order to nurture the project, launch fresh fictions. Then again, it may gauge the pressure on an artist achieving success so soon in her career. Works like Autopsy of Michael Jackson (2005) and How We Would Give Birth (2006) are both amusing and obtuse, but notice that one is a fiction while the other is merely generic. Both abstract in various ways, and allow departure from the strictly factual; extend liberty to record only the salient, even outrageous details. The genre nurtures a version of expressionism; the style adjusts accordingly. The works refer in this way to elementary illustrations and stories, variously child-like and chilling. But as noted, the formula has nagging limitations, to mood, genre and relevance.
To go beyond this, something has to give. Will the work surrender the abstract and expressive to accommodate more restrained if sophisticated genres? Will the work forgo the topical or relevant to cultivate the private and abstract? Is there a middle ground that mixes the schematic and realistic adequate to either? Much of the excitement to Schutz’s work lies in the rich possibilities, the willingness to exploit them.