Dana Schutz is known for her bold and dramatic canvases that combine abstract elements with striking gestural figuration. Often combining recognizable subject matter with a healthy dose of the grotesque, the comical, or the absurd, she paints powerful canvases that reward extended viewing. The Fishermen is a striking example of the artist’s new work and continues her exploration of traditional motifs filtered through a surreal painterly style. Speaking about the present work, Schutz explains, "A boat can be like a contained world within the painting. In The Fishermen, the boat is confined, almost like a fruit bowl and the characters within seem to be similar to the creatures they are catching. They are rudderless, as an oar-like sunbeam seems to be pushing them downriver" (D. Schutz, in conversation with Christie’s, April 2021).
Drawing upon Surrealism and the history of painting in equal measure, The Fishermen is drenched in a strong vibrant palette reminiscent of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. Filled with a myriad of symbols and painterly marks, the work also evokes the late figurative paintings of Philip Guston. Against a rich crimson sky and a dark arterial sea, a cast of characters ride in a rudimentary boat. In the rear, a man with sparse blonde hair and a red shirt wraps his arms around a cache of fish and bones. Another figure, its distorted, magenta face resting in the crook of the previous man’s arm, stares upward. In the background, a head made of red, blue, green, and brown strokes features a prominent eye and a gash of a mouth. All three of these individuals, including the fish, gaze at a yellow, sun-like shape in the upper reaches of the canvas with a mixture of awe and apprehension. In the bow of the boat, a sleeping person with green eye shadow lolls a striped blue and black arm into the surf ahead of the ship. Their hand is nearly entangled in the fishing net cast over the starboard side and which appears to be filled with a mass of darkly painted flotsam and jetsam.
The motif used in The Fishermen is one that Schutz has used before in her Boat Group (2020). In that particular work, she “turns the still-life cliché, a bowl of fruit, into a crazed Raft of the Medusa. In place of plums and apples we get a gang of monstrous heads, glowing with colour like luminous deep-sea creatures, and ready to topple overboard. A Punch-type puppet dangles its lifeless arm like a redundant oar, leaving them directionless in blood-black waves” (S. Sherwin, “Dana Schutz’s Boat Group: dystopian visions and existential angst,”The Guardian, Sept. 25, 2020).
The undefined narrative of The Fishermen... mingles an art-historical conversation with a deeply personal one.”
At the core of Schutz’s paintings is an abiding interest in expressing emotion. The brushwork makes the artist’s hand readily apparent, and these thick strokes form characters that are imbued with a psychological weight that swells within the canvas. The artist David Salle remarked about this aspect of Schutz’s work, saying, “They have the look of feelings made external. They give a sense of the great freedom of mind at the core of painting, the exhilaration of it” (D. Salle, “Dana Schutz”, Artforum, December 2011). In works like The Fishermen, the angst and pressure of an individual living during a global pandemic bursts forth with a riotous vigor. At the same time, though the colors are vibrant and verge on gruesome, there is an odd calm about the composition. Schutz paints a pregnant pause filled with all of tomorrow’s possibilities.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).