With bravura brushwork, vibrant colors and inventive forms, Dana Schutz’s paintings make for an exhilarating viewing experience. In the recent exhibition “Fight in an Elevator,” consisting of 12 large paintings and four charcoal drawings, the Brooklyn-based Schutz continued her exploration of human feelings of insecurity—offering, perhaps paradoxically, an ambitious, confident treatment of the subject. It is easy to identify with her characters, for whom life is a struggle. Their environments are challenging. Space keeps collapsing around them. Physically awkward, they have large eyes, geometric heads and angular limbs, and are unsettling in a way that the term “cartoony” doesn’t quite convey.
Picasso and Guston exert a strong influence on Schutz, their innovations a base from which she builds new variations. Recalling Cubism, her fracturing of space sometimes takes her compositions to the limits of legibility. This only adds to their engaging quality, as they require a certain amount of deciphering. Given their super saturated palette and references to the graphic style of comics, the paintings also bring to mind Pop art, especially Lichtenstein. They are loaded, however, with Schutz’s signature pinks and golds. Flat areas of color are articulated with jagged lines and modeled by smears. Often the marks look spontaneous and quickly laid in, but they feel so right that they must have been carefully planned.
Many of the works in the exhibition serve as allegories of painting. Assembling an Octopus (2013) clearly refers in its title and imagery to the process of putting together just such a monumental painting. The multifaceted picture features an art class on a beach that is at the same time an operating theater. The circle of students draws a purple octopus while a man in a black suit works to stitch it together. In Lion Eating Its Tamer (2015), a lion, his gigantic head typical of a Schutz protagonist, is shown defeating his tamer. Emerging from what looks like a canvas depicted within the work, the lion’s brush-like tail bears traces of green and purple paint. The lion is of course Painting itself, intent on devouring the helpless painter. Big Parts Small Parts (2015) is particularly delicious to imagine as a statement about painting. Is Schutz thinking of her male art-world counterparts when she presents a bewildered-looking boy with basketball-size testicles?
Schutz’s skillful works capture the feelings that arise when one struggles against one’s limitations. The artist has mentioned that the two paintings that gave the show its title were inspired, in part, by two much-publicized fights in elevators (one between Beyoncé’s sister Solange and Jay Z; and the other between former NFL running back Ray Rice and his now-wife, Janay), but they are also about what it feels like for a painter to be stuck within the canvas as an arena in which to act. Again and again in her latest works, Schutz succeeds in taming the lion, in assembling the octopus.