Dana Schutz: Paintings 2001-2005
Conversation between Raphaela Platow and Dana Schutz, September 2005
RP: Shortly after finishing art school you staked a claim in the realm of contemporary painting. Has it always been painting for you?
DS: Not always. I have made sculpture in the past. But mostly I've been painting.
RP: Could you describe the steps that lead to a finished work?
DS: It's difficult to describe. The process is different for each painting. I tend to be an additive painter, building one thing on top of another. Sometimes elements will line up in a tangential way, which is really fortunate.
RP: Do you create drawings? If so, how are they related to the paintings?
DS: Yes, I do. Usually they are thumbnail sketches. Or really rough drawings, just to figure out the scale and composition of the picture. I don't draw directly on the canvas and the initial composition always changes in the process.
RP: While you were working on your most recent body of work, there were moments when you got really frustrated with a work-in-progress. What is it that gets you stuck and what do you do to resolve the situation?
DS: Getting stuck is part of the process. I get stuck if a painting is too much one way or another. Again, it depends on the painting. Sometimes I will abandon it and return to it later.
RP: Do you enjoy beginning a new work?
DS: Yes, because everything is wide open.
RP: Do you choose the colors before you start painting?
DS: I spend a lot of time mixing colors before I start. It's only to get me going. If I have fifty colors mixed, I don't have to stop painting. I respond to those initial colors and alter them.
RP: You use a very bold and gaudy palette. Have you always been comfortable using color the way you use it now?
DS: Color is one of those things that's hard to talk about. It is never absolute. I started to actively consider the possibilities of more saturated and expressive colors when I was painting the pictures of "the last man on earth" in the series Frank from Observation. Reality was relative in that narrative space, and I wanted the palette to operate in a more subjective manner. I think of color in a bodily or physical way and tend to make decisions about it when I am visualizing what I am about to paint. If I make a painting of a sick man I want the color to describe how sick he is and in what way he is sick.
RP: So, colors embody states of being, moods, and atmospheres?
DS: They can, but I am thinking of color as an adjective, how it can describe the poetic qualities of an object.
RP: You execute the different areas of your canvases with their own brushwork, but there is no hierarchy governing the objects. Every part of the painting is realized with equal intensity. You apply the paint in thick strokes as if you were sculpting your imagery from paint. Do you employ a particular technique?
DS: There is no special technique, but I do often feel like I am building my subject matter as I am painting it. Often I will stack spaces, or place one brushstroke on top of the next. In some of the paintings there is a scaffoldlike composition.
RP: In the painting you just finished, Daytona, of a sunburnt blond on the beach with a stoned smile and red-rimmed eyes staring into nothingness, you built up the paint to such an extent that it became a relief. What were your thoughts behind this effect?
DS: In Daytona, the picture plane swells out in a way that is independent of the image. I wanted the painting to look as though something were buried under the surface. I feel like the swells could act as symptoms for what is depicted. The girl and the landscape could equally well be artificial or supernatural.
RP: You listen to music constantly while you're working. Do you choose particular songs or is it random?
DS: Sometimes I try to match up the music with the paintings. At certain times I listen to talk radio just to get angry, and at other times for the background hum. I like all sorts of things: Van Dyke Parks, Zachary Cale, The Slits, The Fall, The Raincoats... I listen to mixes a lot too.
RP: You work and live within a community of artists who are also your friends. Some of them you met during your time as a graduate student at Columbia University. How important or influential to you as an artist is the daily exchange and ongoing dialogue within this community?
DS: It is really important. I spend most of my time in the studio, and without people around I could go crazy. Conversations can happen spontaneously without my having to leave the studio.
RP: It seems to me that you have been working for the last few years on distinct bodies of works that take clues and inspiration from one another. Can we talk first about the paintings that are based on musicians? These include The Breeders; E.S.G., which presents a freestanding stage, surrounded by outsize foliage, on which a drum set, mike stands, disco balls, and a few broad brushstrokes defining the band members are densely packed together; 50 Foot Queenie, a monumental portrait of PJ Harvey; the psychologically fraught images of Kim Gordon in Her Arms, where the figure almost merges with the background; and Bad Instincts, a painting of Jutta Koether as a shy and confused female figure, which looks like the depiction of a karaoke gig gone wrong.
DS: I was attempting to approximate in the paintings the attitude of the musicians' performance and music. They are post-gender. And I was thinking of them as half-built sculptural goddesses. With the painting of Jutta Koether, my intention was to represent her more fiercely than she ended up being. Her performances are like manifestos that play with what the viewer can accept, feel comfortable with, and believe. She seems to aggressively pose the question, is the avant-garde a possibility and what can it do? Maybe the avant-garde itself was always a performance of some sort. It is similar to punk in representing an attitude rather than a form, possibly a delusion but a necessary delusion, as it forces—if only momentarily—a questioning of beliefs and systems of power. Her "performances" are confrontational. At first I wanted to try to express this in the painting, but I knew from the beginning I would most likely fail. The attempt was maybe a performance in itself. At the time I was making these paintings, I was thinking a lot about European abstraction—people like Kandinsky, Malevich, and the Cobra group. I was interested in how this abstraction was politically or historically interrupted, when the artists had to adopt more open-ended strategies for their forms.
RP: Another body of works visualizes feelings, involuntary gestures, and states of being that have no concrete form: Feelings, Stare, Happy, Sneeze, Myopic, Blind, Coma, My Mind Is Still, just to mention a few. Could you talk about these works?
DS: They refer to a literary process of depiction. I'm interested in objects and events that previous to their depiction have no discrete form, subjects that can only be visualized. Some of these paintings deal directly with sight—with the condition of having too much sight or not enough. The painting Stare in part came from a David Sedaris short story in which one of the characters spent the hours of 1 to 4 p.m. staring at his hands. In order to stare at your hands you can't be using them for anything particularly useful. I know it's romantic, but it's also really creepy to think about hands as objects. Happy is a painting of a figure that is entirely self-made from its own digested material, so it is in charge, free, just kind of happy.
RP: Fanatics literally pictures eight fanatics, their gestures, clothing, and accessories epitomizing different ideological beliefs or obsessive interests. They are gathered in front of a tree behind a smashed chain-link fence. An austere rectangular building is located in the distance. Rather than relating to each other, they are oriented toward the viewer or whatever might be on the other side of the fence, arguing, proselytizing, or self-involved. Why did you compose the work this way?
DS: I was wondering if there were a cause that could bring together all of these different fanatics. As in the subway, in a painting you can draw many disparate elements into one space. All the figures are meant to be addressing the viewer. The chain-link fence separates the inside and the outside of the painting, creating a division between "us" and "them."
RP: Gravity Fanatic presents a grotesque image of a girl who is consumed by a law of physics, one of the most absurd things to be obsessed with. It seems to be a cynical comment on your work Fanatics and, indeed, any form of fanaticism. How did you come up with the idea for this work?
DS: Gravity is one of the only principles that people can agree on, one that doesn't seem to be under any threat. I didn't know exactly how painting a gravity fanatic would work. I considered putting her in a situation where gravity didn't exist, but then I became more interested in her confirming a given. The objects are in-between sitting on the table and floating. The tape, also, either affirms or breaks the picture plane. Fanaticism is a form of abstraction, a very scary form of abstraction.
RP: Early on, you began creating paintings—sometimes an entire series of works—based on a set of circumstances that you staked out beforehand. The premises then develop and change while you work. I believe that Frank from Observation is the first series of paintings on which you imposed a hypothetical narrative. Could you talk about Frank, the last man on earth, painted from life but extended into the imaginary according to the parameters you set for him?
DS: Frank was somebody I invented, but I proposed to paint him from observation. He was the last subject and the last audience and I was the last painter. He was a hybrid of information I found in narratives and people I know. In one of the paintings he has my friend Pat's eyes, in another he is part proboscis monkey. He's like a ball of play-dough rolled on the floor, he began to pick up different attributes as the paintings went on. Initially, I was going to commit to making paintings only of him, but then I got restless and wanted to paint other things, so I took him apart and built other people and events out of him.
RP: Frank dissolved into other paintings of a different subject matter?
DS: Yes, in one of the paintings his body is used to make the band The Breeders. I had just gotten their new CD, and I liked the idea of using Frank to build two women. As a band, Frank becomes a nonfunctioning spectacle for which I would be the only audience member. Although he is configured into a musical group, it is impossible for him to make music, seeing as how he is dismembered, and, in any case, in painting you can only make an allusion to music.
RP: What kind of questions arose for you from this group of paintings?
DS: If there was only one subject and one audience member, would the painting of Frank be considered art, or would it have some other function? Also, in that situation, if there were only two people, who is to say what exists and what holds significance? Maybe I'm alone out there and Frank doesn't exist.
RP: The works Reclining Nude and Frank on a Rock, two of the most literally observational paintings of the Frank from Observation series, are a tongue-in-cheek replay of the most stereotypical pose of the history of art. A long-haired, bearded, bronzed, and blank man reclines on a sandy beach—or is it the desert?—with his phallus partly erect. The same man poses naked on a rock surrounded by an ocean churned by swirling waves. He is obviously displaying himself for you, playing out an interesting gender reversal, in addition to referring to Genesis, which has come full circle, from Adam as the first man on earth to Frank as the last.
DS: Yes, I'm aware of the gender switch in these paintings. I wasn't as much interested in the idea of the "female gaze" as in how I would observe him if he were really there. I invented his parts; in Frank on a Rock, his penis is either stuck to or slightly tucked under his thigh, or I just put it in the wrong spot. It is placed closer to where female genitalia would be. I guess that could be the kind of anatomical mishap similar to a man painting a woman's breasts super-far apart. But I don't mind him sitting on his own penis... it's possible. In Reclining Nude, Frank has a certain sex appeal even though he is purple. In many of the paintings, he is posing and has the appearance of being a blank slate, but he feels very human to me.
RP: There are more recent works that are based on hypothetical scenarios where you portray actual people in situations that you have heard of through the media but never experienced yourself. Men's Retreat is a portrait of high-powered men from around the country, some of them naked and some still in their business attire, in a lush outdoor setting. The way you imagine a retreat for men is quite poignant: they are engaged in primal games, constructed self-discoveries, and boy-scout-like interactions. Could you talk about how you create these imaginary scenarios from real life, and for what reason?
DS: I was feeling tired of always inventing situations, so I began to take information from media stories as a springboard. In Men's Retreat, I was interested in painting a space where I would have no other choice but to project what happens there. There is a certain performance that I assume goes on at these retreats, a desire to locate truth by enacting an idea of "primitiveness."
RP: How about real people in situations that you imagine altogether, like The Autopsy of Michael Jackson?
DS: Michael Jackson is the ultimate self-created man, a site of projection and a construct of the American imagination?. It was weird painting him dead, or painting him at all, as I felt complicit in the whole spectacle craze. In the end, I painted him more or less straightforwardly, like any dead man who has had massive plastic surgery.
RP: The figures in Self-Eater, Eye-Eater, Face-Eater, Mulch, Self-Eater 2, and Man Eating His Chest are self-devouring, tearing themselves apart, eating themselves in a violent, ravenous way. These are scenarios that are almost impossible to imagine, let alone give pictorial form to. What are your thoughts behind these works?
DS: They are self-created too. These figures are self-recycling, autonomous, and self-sufficient. They have no original and are always in a state of becoming. They are defined by their own production.
RP: What, then, is their starting point?
DS: Well, they don't die and they have no need for reproduction, so I figured there never was an original state of wholeness. Since there was no end maybe there was no beginning. On the other hand, I do play god so maybe they started with the first painting that I made of them.
RP: Related to the self-eaters are works in which the figures are both autonomous and involved in the process of creating themselves: as if you, their creator, had imbued them with self-determination. They construct themselves with building blocks that you provide. Twin Parts, for example, shows a clunky figure, resembling Siamese twins with their backs attached to each other, which is situated in an idyllic outdoor setting. Its feet disappear in a thick lawn sprinkled with flowers against a bright blue sky and sparkling sunlight. The figure is taking claylike heaps of material from a shelf to rework itself. Then there are New Legs and Seaside. Do these works have to do with your relationship to your own creations, the connection between the maker and the made?
DS: Yes, they mirror the act of making, only they operate under different circumstances than I do. These are self-eaters, too. They eat themselves and rebuild themselves from their own digested material. These figures are free to reconfigure themselves constantly to whatever form they wish. With them, making is a necessity. In Twin Parts, the figure is half-made, selecting various parts to complete itself. I do think that these paintings might be about the creative process.
RP: Boy, Surgery, and Presentation are about figures that are performed on, with Presentation being the most complex and gruesome. What is the premise of these works?
DS: The figures in these paintings are in the state of being built and recreated. They also mirror the creative act of construction and transformation and, to a certain extent, collaboration. I feel that they could have a hand in making their own picture.
RP: There are two things about these works that are particularly striking to me. First, the dismembered bodies are propped up or presented on some sort of operating table as though suspended in a condition between death and life. Second, the massed onlookers of the scene project their individual feelings about what is going on, like the witnesses in sacral medieval paintings. Can you relate to that?
DS: Yes, when I was making that painting I was thinking of medieval painting and the relationship that spectacle had to reality at that time. The crowd was something that I was very excited to paint. I wanted the landscape to be mapped out with people. In Presentation, the space tilts forward and the whole picture is sort of dumped toward the viewer.
RP: You have painted two self-portraits that bear on what we have just talked about. Self-Portrait of 2003 outlines your relationship with your creations: The figure you are in the process of painting stares at you with wide-open, curious eyes, as if it has a life of its own. Your more recent Self Portrait as a Pachyderm plays with the notion of "what if" that you invoke in some of your other works: What would I look like if I were a pachyderm? It's an awkward image that uses skin as a metaphor for one's emotional and psychological interface with the outside world.
DS: In the 2003 self-portrait, I am painting. I found that it was easier to show myself doing something that I normally do. I wanted the thing that I was painting to have just as much reality as the portrait of myself. In Self-Portrait as a Pachyderm, I was interested in the skin as a segmented, claylike façade that was built one segment on top of the next. The painting also swells out at the eye so the skin is like a mask on top of an independent? form.
RP: Tell me about works like Civil Planning and Reformers. The titles themselves carry a political and social undercurrent that you also grapple with in the pictures. How are these related to the bodies of work we spoke about earlier?
DS: I felt that the self-eaters alone could get pretty limited, as they had to be aware only of themselves. So I thought about a reform group that would attempt to create communities and functioning societies. In Reformers, they are still making their own parts, but they are making them together, trying to collaborate. In Civil Planning, the self-eaters are trying to construct a building. Some of them have to sacrifice themselves to provide construction material. Things aren't going too smoothly for them there is warfare in the background and people are resorting to eating the building. But I wanted to paint the elements that I think are important for society. The loiterers, taking a break from building, are dominant. One of the girls is talking to another who is not listening, but stacking rocks. There is a breakdown in communication or maybe the whole painting is happening in the mind of the girl who's not listening.
RP: In Civil Planning, many things, not necessarily related to one another, are happening in a landscape, more specifically a clearing that fractures the space to accommodate and unite these activities. Could you talk about how you employ landscape?
DS: In Civil Planning, the woods are meant to function as an organizing or framing structure for all the disparate events, but also, by disconnecting the elements, they create chaos. There are two mirrors hanging from the trees. They are meant to provide a worldview, or a view from above, that might make sense out of the whole. But they point into the woods and reflect only abstraction and a tiny fragment of what is happening on the ground. All they do is affirm the view from below.
RP: I can't help but think about the relationship between Civil Planning and Paul Gauguin's Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? of 1897. Is this connection fortuitous or are you commenting on Gauguin's work?
DS: I'm not making a direct comment, but I was thinking about the narrative space of Gauguin's painting in depicting simultaneously the various elements involved in the forming of a functioning state. Also the questions he raises in his title are related to what I was thinking about in relation to contemporary anxieties.
RP: I want to go back to the mirrors in Civil Planning. You have one in your studio that helps you see things from different perspectives. What role does the mirror play in the creation of your work?
DS: I use the mirror to see the paintings backwards. In part, it makes it easier for me to judge when things are straight or level.
RP: Some of your works are tied directly to current events, such as Party, Poisoned Man, and Vertical Life Support, the latter two connected to the flood of media images about the poisoning of Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko and the case of Terri Schiavo. Party, a work created shortly before the last U.S. presidential elections, presents members of the Bush cabinet as two black-suited, bespectacled men and one conspicuous female figure carrying away the president. The figures form a messy conjoined group, dripping with strings, confetti, party hats, and crumpled wrappers that underscore the double meaning of the title. With this work you make a clear political statement by relating it compositionally to the Deposition of the Cross, while with the other two you make associations with imagery circulated by the media.
DS: Initially, when I was painting Party, I wanted to make a group of people into one big person. In the days leading up to the last presidential election, it was all I could think about, so I decided to paint the current administration. At the time, I had no idea what the outcome of the vote would be, so in Party the mass of figures could either be celebrating or being dragged off the scene. In either case, they are trying to hold things together, but are completely disorganized, falling apart internally. Poisoned Man was made in reference to the situation in the Ukraine. I was interested in the cover-up and the construction of a façade that reflected political corruption and sabotage. In Vertical Life Support, I had started out painting the picture as a horizontal but then rotated it. As a vertical picture, the figure hovering between life and death is more difficult to project [project what?]onto. She is slightly animated and seems to be falling out of the picture.
RP: How do you come up with your titles?
DS: They're usually straightforward. For example, if it's a painting of a girl making her legs, I'll call it New Legs.
RP: Do you see a relationship between your work and different incarnations of expressionism, such as German expressionism of the early twentieth century, American abstract expressionism, or the various forms of neo-expressionism (Neue Wilde in Germany, Transavantgardia in Italy, New Figuration in the U.S.)?
DS: I like a lot of German expressionist painting, but I don't consider myself a neo-expressionist or neo-neo-expressionist. The brushstrokes in my paintings are meant to describe what I am painting rather than how I feel in general when I am painting. The brushstrokes talk more about how one form physically affects another.
RP: Your figures and scenarios are contained, and act, within the square of the canvas, a quintessentially modernist trait. How do you reconcile the modernist tradition with being a painter in the twenty-first century?
DS: I definitely put things in boxes. While I am not pointing to the material absoluteness of a painting or its support, I like the tension of the framing edge. I feel that my subjects are aware that they are in the picture. They are not completely disinterested. I think of them as social, like real people.
RP: Could you speak more broadly about your goals and motivations as a painter of your generation?
DS: That's a really tough question! I do consider myself an artist of this generation. I hope that my work reflects what it is, for me, to be alive at this time.
RP: What are you working on right now?
DS: I have been thinking about what right now would look like to us in two million years.
Image Credit: Dana Schutz, Stare, 2003, Oil on canvas, 48.5 x 36 inches.