The Romantic Era Lives on in Dana Schutz's "Piano" Paintings at Friedrich Petzel

Dana Schutz's "Building the Boat While Sailing," 2012, oil on canvas
(Courtesy the Artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York)

WHAT:Dana Schutz: Piano in the Rain”

WHEN: May 2-June 16, Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6 pm

WHERE: Friedrich Petzel Gallery, 537 West 22nd Street, New York

WHY THIS SHOW MATTERS: Since the late 1990s, viewers have depended on the work of Dana Schutz for cryptic renderings of unstable scenes with a nightmarish bent. Like the Romantic era, the current age favors painters who approach figurative portraiture with a healthy dose of expressive and personal content, even when that content is dark or troubling. It is a mode that has suited this Brooklyn-based artist quite well, and it is exactly the sort of thing viewers can expect from “Piano in the Rain,” now on view at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery through June 16.

The exhibition takes its name from the title of Schutz’s particularly Romantic painting in which a longhaired pianist sorrowfully avoids the viewer’s gaze as he (or she?) plays. An even more introspective timbre is taken in “Small Apartment” (2012), in which a spillage of Kandinsky-like ciphers spell out feelings of guilt and despair between two figures sitting across a breakfast table. The mix between abstraction and figuration reaches a nearly-maniacal level in the varied shapes and scribbles born out of a trench coat in “Flasher” (2012), where a hand saw, watches, and pair of scissors almost drown out the darkly upturned face of an urban street crawler. In “Building the Boat While Sailing,” there are moments when figures gleefully grin or spout jets of water from their lips. But “Piano in the Rain” is mostly a show of howls and grimaces, with a series of the artist’s “Yawn” paintings thrown in.

In these pieces, both Schutz and her subjects are aptly being themselves. As in the work of contemporaries Ashley Bickerton or Kristin Baker (or earlier and more famously, George Condo), Schutz’s paintings insist that something mischievous and cruel is going on, but they refuse to tell you what it is. The faces of Schutz’s characters suggest a deep and convoluted emotional pull. It’s frustrating that the stories behind them remain unexplained, but it may very well be why her work is so intriguing.

Click on the slide show to see images from Dana Schutz's "Piano in the Rain," on view at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery.