In her too-controlling but still dear press release, Dana Schutz, 26, writes that for her first solo exhibition she’s painted a “fictional man from observation.” Whether this means she actually studied or just imagined him, I don’t know. Regardless, she says his name is Frank and that she and he are “the last people on earth.” Juicier still, she adds, “The man is the last subject and the last audience and, because the man isn’t making any paintings, I am the last painter.” Sweet, egomaniacal, and bananas, this premise is also a cagey way of clearing a space for herself.
Judging from this overhung 12-painting exhibition (titled “Frank From Observation”), that space is enchanted, frantic, and still germinating. Some of the paintings are more confident than others, a few flop, one is riveting, and the premise is intriguing, with Frank as a puppy-eyed, balding cross between the comedians Chris Elliott and Tom Green, who is eventually killed and dismembered.
Which may explain the freaked-out look in Frank’s eyes in Big Day on Earth, and why he hides behind a tree in Frank at Night. Both paintings are comical, but the former is unresolved and the latter is too close to work by Jorg Immendorf and Martin Kippenberger. Frank as a Proboscis Monkey is admirably compact but just misses. Of my favorites, Slugs is covered with a squall of extruded paint strokes; Suicide, a deranged still life of a broken record player, has something of the “rightness” of Marsden Hartley; Flowers is a tantalizing mass of off-kilter brushwork, helter-skelter space, and flamboyant color; and Night in Day looks like a latter-day Francis Bacon. In it, as well as in The Gathering, we see Frank mutilated, with his fingers cut off and his internal organs dangling from a scaffold or in a heap. In two other canvases, perhaps preludes to these, we see him nude—once purple with a semi-erection, and again on what appears to be an ice floe looking pathetic.
Although she’s still developing, I love Schutz’s daredevil style and anarchic freedom; how she uses paint almost like clay; the idea of her being stuck with this guy while she occupies herself with painting; the way each painting is different; and how her absurd situations feel real (e.g., purple Frank trying to look pretty).
The best painting, The Breeders, looks like a SpongeBob cartoon put through a blender, and has something of the gaudy grandeur and jumbled composition of non-Cubist Picasso or middle-period De Kooning, as well as the intense hues of David Park. Two female puppets play a rock concert in some Technicolor glen, while a teeny naked woman gapes at an even teenier paintbrush. Echoing Cézanne’s habit of outlining shapes in blue, a leaf in the middle of the painting has been outlined in streaky yellow and chiffon pink to hold the interior root-beer brown in, and separate it from the spectacular, crosshatched Jasper Johns pine trees nearby. Such canny painterly know-how is sprinkled throughout this show, and offsets inchoate fears that Schutz’s work is only goofy or cute.
Schutz’s paintings have a pulsing all-overness, not compositionally (as in abstract expressionism, where every area is of equal importance), but in how all the parts are equally and intensely realized—how they come at you with the same vivacious optical force. Her centrifugal compositions always verge on flying apart or collapsing of their own accord. Occasionally, her brushwork is haphazard, as in Big Day on Earth, or her flaming color flattens out, as in Skull, an otherwise bizarre still life of what looks like a severed Wookie head.
As individualistic as she is, Schutz connects to a lot of things—among them what David Sylvester (flaying Pollock in 1950) derisively called “the tradition of the ham-fisted.” Her animated, painterly touch suggests Guston’s late paintings, and what Malcolm Morely, Peter Saul, Elizabeth Murray, Carroll Dunham, and Chris Ofili do when they’re on. Outsider art and thrift-store painting come to mind, as does ’50s Bay Area figuration, ’70s “Bad Painting,” a hoard of now rightly forgotten ’80s East Village artists, the splintered composition of Cecily Brown and Barnaby Furnas, and the aberrant realism of Jason Fox and Brian Calvin.
Although brasher and more burlesque, this show isn’t as weird as her two-person outing at this gallery last year. Then, the imagery was stranger, the color more focused. Here we see Schutz spreading her wings, going in several directions at once, and still learning. The Breeders is fantastic. Because her imagination is so extravagant and slaphappy (she once painted a portrait of a man who could “see the future,” and has written that “I would paint a swimmer with forehead creases deep enough to hold playing cards before I would paint the opening ceremony of the Olympics”), I believe she may have an extra wrinkle on her frontal lobe, and is a wild card in the making.