Dana Schutz’s Deceptively Funny Paintings Can’t Be Unseen


“I can’t wait for you to see this one painting of Dana’s — it’s so funny and so stupid, in the best way, and I love it!”

Overhearing a giggling gay boy shout this to his friend as they walked ahead of me during Chelsea’s teeming night of openings, I decided that since they were cute and I was going to Petzel anyway, it’d be only mildly creepy if I stalked them the final few blocks to find out which new painting in Dana Schutz’s show, “Fight in an Elevator,” had inspired such a declaration.

Mincing through the crowd, toward the back of the gallery, we came upon a lemon-shaped, cantaloupe-colored head beaming out of darkness, with large pink eyes that seemed on the verge of laughing or crying. My future boyfriend had it right: This is Dana Schutz at her best: funny and stupid — if by “stupid” we mean the emotional or bodily and not easily translated into words — complex, highly pitched feelings laid flat-out with Midwestern candor. Face to face with this lost little alien-girl in a puffy jacket, I felt bad for her, then began to laugh. The painting’s title: As Normal as Possible (2015).

“Stay calm and try to look as normal as possible,” she might think while totally freaking out — a flashlight shining through the night and right into her eyes. Looking at the painting, we see how hopeless it is for her. She can’t pull off “normal” — she has done something, or is on something, or is simply a hapless weirdo. Then the horrifying realization: The blocky form in the upper right is a cop car, and we, the viewers, are the cops, positioned out front holding the light.

Dana Schutz’s new paintings are filled with saucer-eyes, like cat’s-eye marbles, that look inward as much as see out. In As Normal as Possible, ellipses rhyme concentrically, from iris to eyelids to head to the yellowed oval of the flashlight’s beam, creating an overall fisheye effect shared by many compositions in the show — a radial swelling of space from the center. Discussing the large painting Assembling an Octopus (2013), the only work in this show that wasn’t painted this year, Schutz told the New York Times, “I thought the composition also ended up looking like a giant eye. I like when a painting can remind an eye of itself.”

Schutz’s world is populated by lightheartedly self-absorbed folks, filled with good intentions and engrossed by their own activities (be they sleepwalking or strangling their neighbor). At the same time, their inner lives extend outward from the painting like a bubble, including us, so we are simultaneously inside and out-. As Normal as Possible, the smallest and simplest painting in the exhibition, shows this most clearly: We can imagine the thoughts of the person staring at us, her motives and fears, and what it would be like to try to conceal them. But as we consider those things, what we see is a human being steeling herself from our inquiries, with maximum goofiness.

In this way, Schutz’s paintings are a kind of free indirect discourse — stories told about other people in the third person, riddled with first-person experiences, fluidly shifting between the two modes. “The issue with painting, maybe, is that people always tend to see it as being in first-person,” she told me a few years ago. “But I think that’s not quite true. The experience of painting is much more diffuse and complicated, actually disembodied in a strange way.” One of the best results is that they remind a stranger of his or her own strangeness.

In terms of composition, Schutz is a contemporary Procrustes, stretching or severing the limbs of her subjects until they fit her merciless rectangle. To do this, she invents scenes in which the spatial confines match the limits of the painting’s dimensions, aligning the edge of a canvas to the exact size of, say, an elevator or shower stall. This slippery congruence between the literal and representational space is a recurring concern — she described her intentions in a painting from her previous show, in 2012, as wanting “the figure to be measuring the space he is in, as well as the literal space of the canvas he occupies.” And it’s a task she executes with the simple charm of Wendy sewing Peter Pan’s runaway shadow safely to his toe.

These paintings’ greatest strength comes from their skeletons, the product of extensive and inventive drawing, which can then be painted quickly, wet on wet, producing an even skin that’s all of a piece. Here Schutz’s signature descriptive squiggle wields the effortless authority of a cowgirl’s whip, a sweeping movement of the entire arm, herding shapes safely along across her vast canvases, settling them into precisely interlocked positions. Rapid passages of related colors build the forms, a rhythm of the wrist as assured as a chef whisking a béchamel. That layer of paint has gradually thinned over the years, glamorously, à la Alex Katz — a happy respite from those who see gloppy materiality as contemporary painting’s reaction to digital life.

Schutz’s new paintings are filled with saucer-eyes, like cat’s-eye marbles, that look inward as much as see out.

The show’s grandest achievement is Fight in an Elevator 2 (2015), one of the two title works. It’s a great and upsetting idea for a painting, literally “ripped from the headlines” — see Solange Knowles and Jay Z, or Ray Rice and then-fiancée Janay Palmer. Eight feet high and nearly as wide, the canvas is divided vertically into three irregular wedges: a central slanted trapezoid (the elevator’s interior) framed by smaller gray segments that represent the opening doors. The fight scene runs down the center of the painting in perfectly orchestrated crashes of crisscrossing shapes, like shoelaces tying it together. The action includes, from the top down, a severed foot wielded like a cudgel; an eye-gouging-in-progress; what looks to be a folding chair about to be slammed into the back of a head; a face being stomped; and an attempted murder by strangulation. But, for all the violence, it’s a bright, almost cheerful painting. (The stranglee’s face is a lovely mélange of deep melons and tempered scarlets, set off by a bright violet shirt.)

What a strange mix of color and feeling. Dana Schutz’s paintings are a barometer of our contemporary social and psychic atmosphere. As Roger White elegantly puts it in his recent book The Contemporaries: “[H]er images bear witness to the mood of boom-time, war-time America: festive and horrible, monstrously cheerful, like a party about to get thoroughly out of control.”

“Fight in an Elevator” captures that lightning storm of free-floating aggression and overwhelming ambivalence we inhabit — a society somehow hysterical and anesthetized at the same time.

Dana Schutz: ‘Fight in an Elevator’
Petzel Gallery
456 West 18th Street
Through October 24