Portrait of the Artist as a Paint-Splattered Googler
THE only thing I really like is that brain," said the painter Dana Schutz, sitting on a stool in her Brooklyn studio and pointing to her detailed study of a strangely shaped human brain in gangrenous shades of green and gray.
Ms. Schutz, 29, has been widely praised for her ecstatically expressive figurative paintings, recognizable by their thick, lush surfaces and flamboyant palette of hot pinks, leafy greens and eggy yellows. But after churning out a dozen vibrant new works for a fall show in Berlin, she found herself in a restlessly experimental frame of mind, casting about for new ideas.
When I'm in periods like this, a lot of times I'll respond directly to what I just made," she said. "I wanted to stay away from figures and really saturated colors. So I started making abstract paintings, mostly because I have no idea how to make an abstract painting, and I was interested in that."
Leaning against the studio walls were the results of her experiments: half-finished canvases covered with dull blotches of color, some overlaid with the floating outlines of geometric forms. "I know," she said, grinning apologetically. "They're really bad."
"I think that's just part of how it is with making art," she said. "Sometimes you're just flooded with ideas, and then other times you're questioning all the ideas you ever had before and everything is just ... lame."
Well, maybe not everything. At the far end of the studio was a large, unfinished painting of the artist at her desk in front of her computer. Titled "Self-Portrait Googling," the work is about "the seemingly aimless things that people do when they are generating ideas," she explained later by e-mail. "You feel like time has just slipped away. Like one minute you're looking up tofu, the next minute you're looking up the Situationists."
"Self-Portrait Googling" will be the newest work in her exhibition opening Thursday at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. "Dana Schutz: Works From 2002-2005" is a sort of early-career retrospective, with some two dozen paintings and an illustrated catalog.
Since her highly acclaimed solo debut in 2002, Ms. Schutz has become one of the most sought-after artists of her generation. Within the last two years, she has had one-person shows in New York, Paris, Berlin, Kansas City and Santa Fe. Her work has been included in scores of group exhibitions, including the Prague and Venice Biennales.
Critics love her winsome, absurdist sensibility and confidently freewheeling brushwork. And so do collectors. Lately, the demand for her work has grown so great that her New York dealer, Zach Feuer, has imposed restrictions on sales to private collectors: he will sell her paintings only to people who promise to donate them to museums or other public collections. His aim, he said, is "to encourage people to be patrons rather than collector-dealers."
So far, his strategy seems to be working. Early last year the Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz purchased Ms. Schutz's mural-sized painting "Presentation," and made it a promised gift to the Museum of Modern Art. The painting, a vaguely gruesome scene depicting two large, prone figures surrounded by a curious but blank-faced crowd, was one of the highlights of last year's "Greater New York" exhibition at P.S. 1 Contemporary Arts Center. It now hangs in the latest installation of contemporary art at the Modern.
Ms. Schutz's swift success has engendered some grumbling among art bloggers, who blame market hype for what they see as an overeager embrace of youthful talent. "Why not let a painter with potential start to make mature work before turning her into a star?" wrote Tyler Green, author of the popular blog Modern Art Notes, on another blogger's message board.
"It's a valid question," said Raphaela Platow, curator of the show at the Rose. "Her work is interesting and she's also a very prolific artist. There are 43 images in the catalog and these are only the very best work - there are a lot more we could have included. Ideas sort of ooze out of her."
Ms. Schutz grew up in Livonia, Mich., a quiet suburb of Detroit, and speaks with the flattened vowels of the upper Midwest. She is funny, nervous and decidedly unpretentious, with a wardrobe that consists mostly of T-shirts, jeans and paint-splattered running shoes.
The first art Ms. Schutz remembers seeing was by her mother, a junior high school art teacher whose Abstract Expressionist paintings of Lake Michigan hung on the walls of their home.
When she was 15, her mother gave her a set of oil paints; from then on, she spent most of her free time turning out what she now describes as "typical high school paintings: angsty, emaciated people, teacups and clocks, skinny androids ... stuff like that."
With a bachelor's degree from the Cleveland Institute of Art, Ms. Schutz moved to New York to attend the graduate program at Columbia University's School of Art. There, she began a series of imaginary portraits for her single friends of what she envisioned as their ideal mates.
"I would think about who would be the right person for them," she said. "My friend Susan, for example, would probably like someone older than her, with reddish hair. Maybe she met him at a bar, but he likes to stay home and cook a lot, and maybe he's balding a little bit."
As the paintings progressed, Ms. Schutz's imaginary characters began to feel like distinct individuals. "That's when I feel really excited about a painting," she said. "When it starts to feel real, when it feels like it has a personality." Unfortunately, her single friends didn't always share her views on their potential mates. "Susan was really creeped out by the guy I made for her," Ms. Schutz conceded.
Her first major body of work, "Frank From Observation," centers on another invented character, Frank - a gentle, balding hippie who happens to be the last man on earth. Alone in a pictorial universe pulsating with tropical hues, Frank suns himself on a rock, stares out into a starry night, and at one point takes on the features of a proboscis monkey surrounded by jungle foliage. "I was interested in how art would function without an audience," she said. "If civilization came to an end, what would be art's purpose?"
In her next series, presented in 2004, she invented a race of "self-eaters" - sexless creatures with the strange ability to devour themselves and to create new body parts out of the digested material. These striking images of figures stuffing their own hands, eyeballs and limbs into their gaping mouths are often interpreted as allegories of painting itself.
As the curator Ms. Platow explained, "The self-eaters is a brilliant way of relating to painting as this self-absorbing, self-recycling discourse that is constantly trying to reinvent itself."
Although Ms. Schutz says she is not particularly interested in making art about art, and tries to avoid overt references to art history, her paintings act like magnets for stylistic comparisons. Among the many artists invoked by critics in relation to her work are Gauguin and van Gogh; the Belgian eccentric James Ensor; midcentury painters like Francis Bacon and Philip Guston; and the contemporary artists Cecily Brown and Barnaby Furnas.
Within the last year or so, Ms. Schutz has increasingly turned to politics and current events as springboards for her painterly imagination. Inspired by the spectacle of Michael Jackson's criminal trial, she painted the pop star into an imaginary autopsy scene.
"Poisoned Man" (2005), a portrait of a puffy-faced, jaundiced-looking figure, was prompted by the poisoning of President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine. In "Men's Retreat" (2005), she imagines a forest gathering in which corporate powers like Bill Gates and the former Tyco chairman Dennis Kozlowski wear blindfolds, play bongo drums and give one another piggy-back rides.
"Party" (2004), painted shortly before the last presidential elections, depicts several members of the Bush White House together on a beach. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice bear the bloated body of former Attorney General John Ashcroft, in a sort of secular Descent From the Cross. Trailing behind them are electrical cords and a pointed brown hood, which recall the images of torture at Abu Ghraib.
Although the palette is cheery, this new work has a sharp satirical edge that cuts to the core of the pervasive, surreal quality of American political life.
"The distinction between reality and fiction in America seems like it is becoming really blurry," Ms. Schutz told the artist Maurizio Cattelan, in an interview in Flash Art. "With its religious fanaticism, reality TV programs and fake news broadcasts being aired by the government, the States feel like they are entering the Dark Ages.
"I think of America right now like a hormone-injected, very bronzed turkey," she concluded, invoking an image that could have been pulled directly from one of her own paintings.