At twenty-nine, Dana Schutz is rapidly ascending to the established ranks of leading artists on the contemporary art scene. Already vaunted with seven solo shows in New York, Boston, Paris and Berlin and included in several group shows, she is featured in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Emerging on the scene with her New York solo debut in 2002 a few months before Columbia's School of Fine Arts awarded her with an MFA, Schutz came of age with fellow alumna and talented newcomers Barnaby Furnas, David Altjmed and Kevin Zucker. Belying a confidence beyond her years, she combines bravura brushwork, a bold palette and crudely delineated cartoonish forms to comment on issues filtered through an expressive private mythology. She relies on the grotesque, joining the ranks of many contemporary artists who use it as a metaphor to comment on societal issues. This method has resulted in endless comparisons to Philip Guston's late work, but the associations do not stop here. Critics have linked her work to the symbolism of Gauguin, the naove forms and garish palette of Kirchner, the instinctive color sense of Matisse and the overall style of Immendorf. However, as this diverse array of art world giants may suggest, her work is not easily pegged. Like the best artists before her, she quotes from history but maintains a distinct voice of her own.
Referencing during her student days at Columbia, Project at Kensington represents a field where students abandoned their failed sculptures and is part of a series, which includes works such as Untitled, 2001 (fig. 1). It foregrounds an ambiguous mound-like structure on a table against a bucolic backdrop. Wielding paint like the unfortunate sculptor of the orphaned piece, Schutz sculpts her image as much as she paints it. Likening the process of painting to a type of building, she encrusts the surface with wet pigment rendering it a tactile three-dimensionality that mirrors the clay-like material that comprises the sculpture. The subject slips in and out of lucidity, oscillating between image and object, illustration and medium, painting and relief.
The ambiguity does not stop here. Within the image, there is a perpetual negotiation between representation and abstraction. Schutz states, "Landscapes offer so many possibilitiesI have been interested in the way that forest spaces can create a fractured space." Project for Kensington can be regarded in formal terms as expert deployments of color, contour and composition. Schutz displays the uncanny adeptness of a seasoned abstractionist but does so in the service of a figurative and narrative agenda, but the situation is foggy even within these realms, fluctuating between reality and fantasy. Having discovered that the Germans used the woods as a symbol of imagination and the unconscious, Schutz states that landscape is "a space for fantasy, projection and irrationality." The featured sculpture has a certain grotesque and anthropomorphic quality that is noticeably more explicit in Untitled Sculpture (2001) and Chris' Rubber Soul (2001) that were both made for the same exhibition. Resembling one of Guston's hooded heads, her forlorn sculpture seems to disguise a disturbing malevolence.
Schutz's quirky, intelligent paintings are quizzical contemplations about the process of painting, the malleability of imagery, the nature of reality and the psychology of imagination. Her work never concludes in neat resolution, leaving the viewer suspended in the gorgeous provocation of her creations. Project at Kensington is an early work that embodies the artist's developing gifts and the promise of future greatness.