After the Quake, Dana Schutz Gets Back to Work

Dana Schutz was readying her coming gallery present, and chaos reigned on the partitions of her Brooklyn studio. Her new works supplied the painter’s signature scenes of hysteria and mayhem.

In “Presenter,” a feminine speaker at a TED-style occasion, along with her underwear down round her ankles, tried to pull her personal face off. “Treadmill” depicted a lady with a fishlike head flailing away on an train machine. And in “Painting in an Earthquake” an artist in entrance of a canvas held a brush as a brick wall earlier than her shook violently.

“She’s trying to hold the room together, and the painting is falling,” Ms. Schutz mentioned of that determine.

Thirteen work, together with 5 bronzes that characterize her first foray into sculpture, are in Ms. Schutz’s present, “Imagine Me and You,” which opens Thursday at Petzel Gallery in Chelsea.

When asked if she regretted making the work, she paused and said, “No, I don’t wish I hadn’t painted it.”

The long-term effect of the controversy, she said, is that she has internalized the viewpoints of the protesters even when making new work.

“I’ve had so many conversations with people who were upset by the painting,” Ms. Schutz said, adding that she has included them in “my imagined audience when I’m painting. It’s good those voices were heard.”

Ms. Schutz, 42, established her reputation with expressionistic compositions featuring figures that seemed to be pushing at the edges of the picture planes with their limbs akimbo, barely skirting — or is it courting? — disaster.

Either way, emotion and empathy seem to drive her work. “I’m interested in how something feels, rather than how it looks,” she said at her studio, explaining her approach.

But the debate over “Open Casket” — and a subsequent controversy over the Walker Art Center’s handling of “Scaffold,” by the artist Sam Durant, which evoked in part the hanging of 38 Dakota Indian men in Minnesota in 1862 — raised challenging questions for the exhibition of art in museums and elsewhere: Who has the right to tell certain stories, empathetically or not? Is it appropriate when a white artist recasts one of the most influential images of all time — Till’s mutilated body — or is it cultural appropriation?

(Ms. Schutz said her painting was not of the historic photograph but “has more to do with other paintings,” including Ben Shahn’s “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti,” a work of social protest from 1931-32.)

Even Ms. Schutz’s ardent fans, including Gary Garrels, the senior curator for painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art — who called her an “exceptional colorist” — said the debate was a “wake-up call” for the art world, adding that the salient question for an artist now was, “To what degree do you take for granted your own perspective?”

In person, Ms. Schutz, smiling and casually dressed in a sweater and jeans, seems an unlikely art-world lightning rod. She grew up in Livonia, Mich., and studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art before getting her M.F.A. at Columbia University. She comes across as determined, if prone to self-doubt.

She said that she wasn’t sure, when tackling sculpture for the first time, whether the works would be successful or “just fall down.” Asked if she was the painter portrayed in “Painting in an Earthquake,” she demurred. “With a lot of the paintings, they’re obviously probably pretty personal,” she said. “But I wouldn’t say they’re autobiographical.”

On the subject of “Open Casket” she seemed aware that to act too chastened might come across as courting unearned sympathy; to be defiant would add fuel to the fire.

“I definitely feel conflicted about it and very bad about it,” she said.

Known for her inventive and muscular way of shaping space on canvas to build what her friend, the painter Cecily Brown, called “bulletproof constructions,” Ms. Schutz spoke about the controversy in spatial terms.

“The painting is what it is,” she said. “And then there should be space for other people to say what they want to.”

It was the decision of Ms. Schutz and the Whitney to keep the painting on the walls after an artist, Parker Bright, called it a “black death spectacle.”

“I felt that people could see it for themselves and make up their own mind,” Ms. Schutz said.

It wasn’t just the protesters who thought it should come off view. Zach Feuer, Ms. Schutz’s former dealer, said, “I told her she should take it down and cede the space.”

Mr. Feuer, who has since closed his gallery, said that Ms. Schutz — who decamped to Petzel Gallery in 2011 — “was made an example of, but I don’t think it was incorrect to do that. We’re not above criticism.”

But he added a sentiment echoed by many in the art world: “I feel bad she’s the one it happened to.”

“Open Casket” is tucked away in Ms. Schutz’s possession, unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon.

“When there were suggestions for the painting’s destruction, I took that as a call for it to be out of circulation,” she said. “I wanted that, too. The painting was never for sale, and I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for it to circulate in the marketplace.”

GROWING UP IN SUBURBAN Michigan, the only child of an art teacher and a guidance counselor, Ms. Schutz showed an early independent streak.

Perhaps it was a natural evolution that led her restless painted figures to finally burst through the picture planes into sculpture. For these forays — the first since some “very bad collegiate attempts” — she made drawings, and then sculpted in clay before having them cast in bronze.

“It felt so new,” she said, pointing to “Washing Monsters,” a companion piece to the painting of the same title. In both depictions, a man stuck on a mountaintop is being awkwardly hugged by a monster with a face like an animal skull.

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