DANA SCHUTZ, How we would give birth, 200, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches
Since I’ve been writing this blog I’ve received a fairly constant stream of inquiries asking me to explain the “greatness” of Dana Schutz’s painting but have hesitated doing so for two reasons. The first and probably most obvious lies in the fact that pontificating on bodies of work that are no longer on exhibition lacks the currency blogging requires. More importantly however, I find it hard to think of a starting point for a discussion that does a greater disservice to an artist than an evaluation of their art stardom. Such conversations typically give the artist all kinds of feedback on a phenomenon that ideally has nothing to do with their practice, and comparatively little they can use in their studio. As a result, this post will discuss only what I think works in the exhibition and what doesn’t.
Based on the above statement it won’t come as too much of a surprise that Stand By Earth Men titles an uneven show. Composed of 15 works, the exhibition features a variety of paintings ranging from her well known narratives in fauve like palettes, to those in more earthy tones, to new smaller abstract explorations. The most successful of these How We Would Give Birth, depicts a woman gazing into a traditional landscape painting while giving birth, and hangs in the middle gallery flanked by Mona and Abstract Model (which faces the room on the exterior wall.) Aside from being composed and painted beautifully, the pairing of art historical works about colonization and nation building, with the delivery of child, not only speaks to the development of empires, but indicates that such beginnings do not come without pain and bloodshed.
Mona, (left) which hangs across from How We Would Give Birth similarly features a woman with her face obscured. While the exhibition design has been clearly been arranged to create a dialog between these two works, exactly what they are supposed to say to each other remains obscure to me. As far as exhibitions go certainly a painter could have far greater worries, but I bring the subject up because it speaks to a larger issue in the show. While works such as How We Would Give Birth, How We Would Drive and The Deal (shown in the office not the main exhibition space) are unquestionably great, others lack sufficient purpose or direction. Even though Mona is a reasonably good painting, I’m still left wondering what was behind this appropriation. Why the Mona Lisa? What is the rationale behind turning her face? Is this the best we have to offer the new world?
Maybe this is part of the question, since the press release tells us the paintings are “stories to our future selves”, and “miscues to that future,” but I’m still not convinced the rearticulation of an overvalued celebrity painting represents her strongest work. What’s more, I’m very unclear on the relationship the new abstract paintings have with the rest of the show. In fact, it wasn’t until I was told that Schutz intended these works to be shown with particular paintings, that I had any idea there was a connection between them. A viewer doesn’t have to know the specifics of a formal or narrative arrangements for the art to work, but we have to at least know that it’s there if this is the artist’s intention.
Other experiments also turn out less well than had hoped. Possibly a repetition inspired the ink spot on the shirt of Day Dreamer (left), amorphous holes mimicking the form are cut throughout the paintings Female Model, Male Model, and Abstract Model. I rather like the idea that if these are the models are presented to our future selves they are not only imperfect, but incomplete, but the lack of formal resolution keeps me from being overly interested in the underlying themes. The space the holes create in the work simply doesn’t make sense with the flatness of the paint. Possibly the process of removal is one that doesn’t suit the painters way of thinking since How We Would Dance, a dark portrait of dancers in a hall with large strips of paint missing lacks a resolution of surface treatment as well.
With all this said however, I would be remiss if I didn’t hand it to the painter for trying new avenues; particularly when the market would happily eat up more of the same from her. We expect this from artists, so on that level issuing such statements probably seems like a real softball, but in this case I feel it’s important to put out there because it’s clear the failed work comes out of a real engagement with painting, as opposed to simply burning out young. If Dana Schutz is the painter I think she is, the next show will be much more resolved, and her work better for having made a few bad pieces.
Exhibition runs through May 19th.