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DANA SCHUTZ Fight in an Elevator

In her twelve new paintings currently on view at Petzel’s Chelsea location, Dana Schutz surprises her audience yet again with exuberant pictures that simultaneously depart from, and are consistent with, her previous work. Narrative, humor, and saturated color remain tantamount, and her figures’ faces still look as if they’ve been made from Sculpey. In this new body of work, though, she constructs more dynamic spaces in order to deliver her wonky narratives. Space becomes a substitute for time, allowing us to glimpse a bustling scene or to observe multiple, concurrent moments colliding and overlapping across her large canvases. 

Dana Schutz, Fight in an Elevator 2, 2015. Oil on canvas, 96 × 90 inches. Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York.
On View
Petzel Gallery
September 10 – October 24, 2015
New York

In a 2012 interview in the Rail, Schutz described the complexity of narrative in painting: “It’s interesting to think how narrative works in a painting—it’s not dictated in real time, but it does have its own time. So you can read the painting and it can unfold, but in a slightly different way for everyone. Because paintings are typically still, it’s awkward to think of them as time-based.”1 Media like film and novels string together moments to create a narrative. It occurs over time, offers causality, and predetermines a set viewing speed. Paintings, as Schutz points out, are “typically still,” showing a singular moment, a frozen present, rather than a story that involves past, present, and future.

In her pre-2012 work, the magical weirdness of her fantastical vignettes occurred in a fictional yet recognizable world populated by recognizably human characters. They were mostly unaware of the viewer and engaged in horrific activities, like eating their own faces. Schutz also maintained a clear distinction between figure and ground in her compositions, and continues to work in this mode intermittently. In the hilarious, and completely accurate, Swiss Family Traveling (2015), Schutz places her subject in a familiar context, still delineating figure (a family with roller bag and map) from ground (airport). Larger than life, they stand close to the edge of the picture plane, and the airport recedes in deep space behind. When Schutz prioritizes her figures, we focus on the interpersonal relationships, rather than the places they inhabit: the disinterested mom, the stunned son, the sulky teenage girl, and the confrontational character who looms behind.

In the earliest and largest painting in the show, Assembling an Octopus (2013), Schutz abandons any consistent perspectival structure and intentionally blurs figure-ground relationships to incorporate unlikely, concurrent situations. By painting this picture wet-on-wet, Schutz suggests that random, unrelated actions all occur at the same time, at the same densely crowded beach. All portions of the painting feel equally important, especially because Schutz’s figures grow in size near the top of the canvas, completely eliminating any sense of receding, familiar space.

Schutz squeezes multiple vignettes together, her characters bumping into physical boundaries. A man steps over the sandbox’s wooden slats, which meet at unlikely angles in the bottom quadrant; students draw on the disjointed paper on easels, a doctor examines her patient’s tongue as a beach ball flies toward them; a young boy stares at a woman’s vagina. By cropping her figures and by blocking portions of the painting with the students’ drawings, Schutz creates a dynamic composition that allows us to navigate and connect a multiplicity of colliding, concurrent moments. 

In another standout painting, Slow Motion Shower (2015), Schutz engages with the language of cubism, especially Picasso’s Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair, to express the progression of time. Rather than borrowing the warm brown of Picasso’s piece, Schutz paints a single figure with multiple limbs in an exaggerated pink that evokes overly scrubbed skin. The multiple limbs hint at the time-based act of washing, as if Schutz has overlaid multiple moments onto a single surface. Though seen in profile, Schutz’s figure appears to have two stacked eyes (classic Picasso). Her construction of the figure, like Picasso’s, is not immediately apparent. Parts are recognizable before they cohere: pendulant breasts, abstracted face, wavy hair, thick legs.

Not only does Schutz piece her figure together from multiple parts, she creates a bathroom that is at once perspectival and flat: the bathtub is tilted forward in an exaggerated curve, so that the woman feels monumental, the shower curtain turns into a running faucet, and the floor seems to meet the wall at an angle too steep to make sense architecturally. Without figural or spatial consistency, the sudsy genitals of the woman (slightly left of center) become even more important, suggesting both the act of cleaning and the potential embarrassment of this intimate act.

Unlike Slow Motion Shower, whose very title suggests the importance Schutz gives to our experience of time, her two eponymous “Fight in an Elevator” paintings (both 2015) capture a single, contained moment in medias res. In both paintings, Schutz catches the elevator doors as they open, or perhaps close. Thus, the doors frame the scene and block our view, distancing us from the action and contrasting with the relative intimacy of Slow Motion Shower. In Fight in an Elevator 2, we glimpse a deeply recessed space in whichfigures crowd on top of each other, spilling out into the foreground of the picture, as if bumping up against the canvas itself. Schutz could have painted a little less door and a little more action, but the crowded—yet contained—space of the middle column perfectly reinforces the claustrophobia of an elevator.

For the past fifteen years, Schutz has made images that stick. The works in this show are no different, but her ability to construct complex, dynamic, cubist-inspired space signals a real addition to her arsenal. In manipulating, and even melding, perspectival and flat space, in abandoning a stark figure-ground distinction, Schutz proves that she can create ever more dynamic paintings that match the complexity and unexpectedness of her narratives.

1. Interview with Jarett Earnest, Brooklyn Rail, June 2012.


Kate Liebman

Kate Liebman is an artist who lives and works in Brooklyn. She is currently a Keyholder resident at the Lower East Side Printshop, and she teaches at Columbia University, Sussex County Community College, and the Manhattan Graphics Center.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2015

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