What Painting Wants: A Q&A with Dana Schutz

Upon seeing a work by Dana Schutz, you’re likelyto wonder, “How did she imagine that, much less paint it?” Her grotesqueand often humorous scenarios have elements of sci-fi and apocalyptic survivalism, but they’re also about the challenge of finding novel approaches to the figure. Her first solo show in Chelsea chronicled theadventures of a fictional last man on earth named Frank. Since then she’s depicted people cannibalizing their own bodies, scientists using sharks to cure the plague, and the founding fathers convening in a watery, psychedelic meeting hall.

Schutz is unusually well-equipped to communicate these startling visions. She has a kind of painterly telepathy, a quality that allows her to delve into Ensors crowds and dissect Eakinss corpses. It doesn’t hurt, either, that she’s a once-in-a-generation colorist.

Within the fickle, contentious art world she’s also known for her loyalty, to longtime dealer Zach Feuer and to the other artists she befriended while getting her MFA at Columbia (she graduated in 2002). These relationships survived an onslaught of attention around 2005, when collectors fought over her paintings and MoMA acquired her immense, prismatic surgery scene, Presentation. The last couple of years have been steadier and quieter, but Schutz’s most recent solo show at Feuer — in 2009 — kept critics guessing with an explosion of pattern and a new acidic palette.

This month, Rizzoli is publishing Schutz’s first monograph, covering a decade of her painting and containing a text by the author Jonathan SafranFoer, one of few people whose visual imagination might be said to equalSchutz’s own. In July she’ll have a solo show at the DouglasHyde Gallery, at Trinity College in Dublin.

ARTINFO spoke to Schutz about her book, her newest paintings, and the mood of the post-boom art world.

Your new book has a foreword by Jonathan Safran Foer. Do you feel a connection between your painting and his writing?

I met Jonathan a while ago through Sam Messer; I’ve always loved his writing. I actually made a painting based off an email he sent me a while ago, this incredible anecdote about a botanical garden that was once in the Coliseum. It had sprung up from all the seeds embedded in the pelts of animals from all over the world and was fertilized by all the blood that was spilled there. At the time I was working on a series of paintings based on the phrase “I’m into.” One of the phrases I came across online was “I’m into Conceptual Gardening” andI was really thinking about the image that Jonathan’s story created.

The book’s other contributor, Barry Schwabsky,compares you to Emily Dickinson — particularlythe paintings of “Self-Eaters,” which remind him of her poem number 773: “Deprived of other Banquet/I entertained myself.”

I had never read Emily Dickinson before, but I loved what Barry wrote. It made me think about what I was painting in a different way. Especially about the face-eater — the face being a site for expression, devoured. I never really thought of my paintings as purely allegorical.

Often your imagery has social and political sources, whether it’s bodies from the Iraq War or overzealous plastic-surgery patients. One of your most recent paintings, for instance (Signing, 2009), showsthe founding fathers signing the Declaration of Independence.

I think there’s politics that can be wound up in a lot of different forms, but I never feel that I’m trying to address an issue. Idid Signing before the Tea Party got so big.

Another painting in the book that feels oddly prescient is The Autopsy of Michael Jackson, which was made four years before he died.

At the time I was making these paintings that were based on things that were happening in the world, and he was on trial. I remember thinking that he would die in our lifetime. I was thinking about it as aphotograph that would be taken that hadn’t been taken yet, and wondering what form he would be in when that picture was taken.

Around that time, you called him a “contemporary monster.”

Monsters are social constructions, and I always felt that he wasa really weird mirror on the social. He’s always had this thing with the undead, the uncanny — his glove was the hand detached from the body, or his socks were really prominent, like feet detached from the body. The idea that he even could have an inside was really weird.

It’s interesting to revisit other works from five years ago, like Presentation, which was shown at the last “Greater New York” exhibition at P.S.1 and then entered MoMA’s collection. That was a big moment foryou. How does it feel, looking back on that point in your career and inthe market?

The talk about the market was really alienating. It was never something you’d think about in your studio. Around 2006 it felt like you’d be naïve to not address this huge thing that was going on, but I was never particularly interested in dealing with it. Those things come and go.For a while I wanted to get away from some of the earlier paintings — you always want to challenge yourself. It’s been interesting looking back at them, because some of them I really like a lot more thanI was thinking. The “Self-Eaters,” for instance. I can look at them again — for a while, I couldn’t. I’m coming back to some of the things I was doing around that time. You always react to what you’ve done, and then you react again.

Your approach to the figure has changed tremendously since the “Self-Eaters.” The most recent paintings in the book play all sorts of optical games, with stripes and Pointillist dots. The figures are flatter, less grotesque.

I wanted the subject matter to look like it could be rearranged — a scene that could be reconstructed, or a picture that could disassemble or blow away. Something kind of jumpy and active, but not a mechanical, op-art thing.

Your influences have evolved as well, away from Guston and Ensorand Picasso.

I was looking at a lot of Jasper Johns; he has some really weirdspatial things going on. Magritte, too. Another person I was looking ata lot was Dubuffet especially his patterned drawings. And just for his palette, which is fantastic, Kees Van Dongen.

What have you liked at the galleries recently?

I love the Amy Sillman show and the Charline Von Heyl show across the street. They are so different from each other. Amy’s is so physical it gets right up on you. Charline’s show is stop-and-go, like mental and painterly karate. I like the idea that a painting wants something from you, to be your friend or to kill you.

What are you working on right now?

A series for the Douglas Hyde Gallery, at Trinity College in Dublin. They’re kind of like Tourettes paintings — involuntary imagery. Sometimes imagery comes to mind without any kind of context, or larger narrative — a completely irrational, sometimes painful kind of image.

Involuntary in the Surrealist sense?

They’re not very Surrealist. They’re more pragmatic. There’s oneof a girl scraping her teeth against a deck. It looks painful — it’s the most painful thing I could imagine. There’s another one of a person witha bird stuck in their throat, and one with someone getting poked in theeye.I always think a painting can be a social space. Standing in front of a painting can be so many different types of experiences — sometimes you’re standing in front of a painting and thinking, “Why is that pictured?” So I wanted to paint these things that were questionable pictures, like, maybe they shouldn’t be pictures.

What’s the general mood right now in the studio, and among the artists you know?

It was scary around 2008 — so many galleries were closing. But forthe most part people feel optimistic now, excited about making work. Even friends whose galleries have closed say that in terms of making work, things feel better now.

Your dealer, Zach Feuer, dropped eight artists from his roster last year.

It was terrible. Many of my closest friends were involved, people whose work I admire enormously.

On a more positive note, people say the dialogue around art is becoming is more serious, less superficial.

It was never really superficial when we were in the studio talking about things. But yeah, it was a problem. In art it’s hard for people to be on the same page about anything, but the market was so dominant — it was talked about all the time. It was depressing, and suffocating. Now people are able to talk more about the art, less about the art market. It feels like a really good time right now. There’s a lot of possibility.