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Dana Schutz is critical kryptonite. It is impossible to write on her work without taking a side on the recent uproar over Open Casket, her 2016 painting of murdered African American teenager Emmett Till's brutalized face, which was included in this year's Whitney Biennial. For what it's worth, I thought the inclusion of the painting was a curatorial misstep—tone-deaf to say the least. And the decision to base her first documentary work on one of the most charged photographs in history—a shot widely credited with igniting the civil rights movement—also seemed reckless on the artist's part.
But the response to its display in New York—especially the demand for censorship and, with her latest exhibition at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art, an effective ban on her work being shown publicly again—seems dangerously out of proportion to the perceived offense. Schutz's painting is a lightning rod for race relations in our tragically riven time. The eruption of long-simmering anger, combined with a toxic social media brew stirred up by self-appointed social-justice gatekeepers, pushed a necessary—and perennial—conversation about responsible representation of the vulnerable and disenfranchised into the red zone, where no clear lessons could be made out.
The painting of Emmett Till is not in the ICA's show, but its effect lingers, and that is sufficient. In the first gallery is a painting made this year, which was on view at the Whitney Biennial, titled Shame. It depicts a naked, bowed figure, hiding its face in its hands and wading through what appears to be a murky swamp. Streaked with blood red marks and distinguished by a gloomy palette, the work struck me as a gesture of deep penitence—although of course I was projecting, since the painting was not made in response to the controversy. Still, I happened to be in the gallery at the same time as a group of young children, and heard one girl exclaim loudly when she saw the work, "Oh my god, look at that monster!" Perhaps by now the artist feels this way about herself?
Maybe it isn't controversy that has led Schutz to adopt a darker palette and a more visceral, lavish application of paint; maybe it's simply anxiety over the election of an apparently senile, morally bereft US president. It's a tough time to be American, and Schutz's new paintings capture the emotions of helplessness, self-recrimination, and disbelief like little else I've seen over the past several months. Another painting, so new you can smell the oil pigment, features a close-up view of a figure with head in hands and a furrowed brow. It's titled To Have a Head, as if to suggest that any thinking person must be troubled over current events. Some passages are goopy and thick, as though the artist couldn't wait to get the paint onto a brush, opting instead to squeeze it directly from the tube. There are so many colors in this painting, in tones ranging from garish to warm, that I lost count—yet they coalesce into a legible whole.
The bulbous bodies of another new painting, Conflict, reminded me of Philip Guston, the beleaguered '60s painter who was blacklisted for jettisoning abstraction in favor of a then-unfashionable figuration, wielding the latter to skewer the loathed Richard Nixon. In Schutz's work, two figures wrestle, intertwined in a Möbius strip that makes it impossible to tell where one body begins and the other ends, or whether they are male or female. One bare foot is dark, suggesting that it belongs to a person of color, while an arm engaged in a sharp shove is as pink as baked ham. The couple seems destined to remain in this struggle indefinitely. There is also a new large-scale elevator painting, a recurring theme for the artist, in which a mob crams into a narrow interior swarming with giant bugs.
These formal shifts represent a striking development for a painter who has always embodied a certain slacker chic. Hardly as nerdy as Nicole Eisenman, as glamorous as Jonas Wood, or as gutsy as Mickalene Thomas—to name a few peers who make figurative work that is far from realist—Schutz has always seemed to occupy a safe middle ground. (Not coincidentally, she emerged just as the contemporary art market was exploding afresh, and has benefited hugely from that general uptick in terms of visibility and financial success.) The people in her paintings looked like people one might bump into at a cool party—diffident, casual, and interested mostly in chilling out.
The truth is that Schutz's painting chops are so good as to be almost invisible; we tend to forget about the technical risks she takes. Take a look at Shaking Out the Bed (2015), for example, an immense canvas of a scene that seems laughably banal—an aerial view of a couple lazing around in bed, entangled without evident passion, and surrounded by heavily frosted donuts and other random detritus. The painting also features a cockroach, a hammer, and a glass, lending the otherwise frivolous tableau a slightly ominous feel. It is so elaborately constructed that you overlook its surreal quality, as jagged angles and a spiraling composition keep the eye engaged despite the painting's density and scale.
In the drolly titled 2012 painting Building the Boat While Sailing, a crowd labors to assemble a raft that is already afloat; one person hammers a nail with his fist, two more try to raise the sail, several others just loll about while, on opposite sides of the canvas, two figures spurt water into the air like Italian fountains. The reference to Gericault's Raft of the Medusa is obvious, but there's a grim suggestion too that Schutz doesn't have much faith in her generation, particularly during a crisis. And in recent years, this liking for depictions of hopelessness seems to have grown more acute; in another large-scale work, one of the strongest in the show, two childlike figures dribble sand into castles on the beach, oblivious to a looming tidal wave studded with flailing bodies. Big Wave (2016) appears to be a clear allusion to the recent escalation of global warming—and to a surge in nationalist sentiment.
Schutz is hardly the first white woman artist to feel the sting of an ill-calculated attempt to demonstrate sympathy with a marginalized community. It is a painful lesson, but one that is universally instructive. Poet Adrienne Rich speaks eloquently of her own awakening to the advantages she had due to her skin color in her 1984 essay "Notes Toward a Politics of Location," writing: "My brain, a woman's brain, has exulted . . . saying, I am the woman who asks the questions. My heart has been learning in a much more humble and laborious way, learning that feelings are useless without facts, that all privilege is ignorant at its core." Schutz is fumbling toward a political voice, discovering gradually how to confront social ills with this kind of humility. I'm rooting for her.
"Dana Schutz" is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, until November 26, 2017.
Claire Barliant is a curator and writer based in Cambridge, MA.