Supposedly, the most accurate depiction of a nuclear explosion Hollywood has ever produced is found in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). After studying US Army footage of nuclear tests, James Cameron's cutting edge CGI team threw together a nightmare sequence that haunted the film's heroine, Sarah Connor, and the American public. Coming upon a hilltop playground overlooking downtown Los Angeles, Connor tries to warn the distracted children and parents of impending doom. But as these sorts of stories go, it's too little too late. The warhead explodes, a mushroom cloud envelops LA and the happy children and parents all ignite, their ashes soon blown off their skeletons by the howling winds of Armageddon.
This might seem an odd introduction to Missing Pictures, Dana Schutz's current show at Zach Feuer in New York. But considering the number of disintegrating figures featured in her new paintings, Cameron's over-the-top sequence provides a pertinent reference point both in terms of subject matter and approach. After all, the closing shot of the sequence, a charred skull rattling on a chain-link fence, errs towards melodrama rather than realism. Produced before the Soviet Union had officially fizzled, Cameron mitigated his audience's anxieties about nuclear war by ending with a note of black humor--an approach Schutz has learned well. In 2009, techno-apocalypse scenarios have given way to a new fear: ecotastrophe.
Born in 1976, Schutz was one of the many success stories that seamlessly transitioned from a high-profile graduate school (Columbia) to hot-young-artist status in the early 2000s. Representing the US at the Venice Biennial in 2003, and already collected by major museums including the Whitney, the Guggenheim and MOMA, Schutz has established an impressive career.
In her first solo show Frank from Observation (2002-2003) she exhibited portraits of the sunburned 'last man on earth' and imagined what plein air painting (or, the act of painting outdoors) could be from the vantage of a post-apocalyptic beach. For those aware of declarations that painting had died mid-20th century, the comic implication was not lost. If Frank was the Last Man, Schutz was the Last Painter. While debunked by the proliferation of painting, especially in recent years, the idea painting already exhausted its novel possibilities still plagues many artists. But for Schutz, the dynamic play between the anxieties of art history and the anxieties of the culture at large has become the focal point of her work.
In Missing Pictures, Schutz has continued positioning imagined events in relation to a post-apocalyptic space. Dulling the warmth typical to her palette and using the scale and conventions of portraiture, Typer, Surprised Girl and Blind Foot Massage all depict interior scenes of contemplation. Yellows and oranges are contrasted with cooler blue-greys and browns. Small in scale, they are familiar homages to great figuration of the 20th century. Hints of Guston's scratchy brushwork meet drawing that waxes Alex Katz.
In smaller pieces, lineages and references are discernable, but in larger works the threads are more difficult to pull apart. Signing, a play on the John Trumbull painting Declaration of Independence (1819), winds its way through American history with a nod toward Peter Saul's airbrushed psychedelic portraiture and a feel for Elizabeth Murray's wonky compositions and forms. All while Founding Fathers fall away like ashes in the wind, thick black strokes deforming their bodies. Threads are picked up then discarded. In Chess, squiggles become texture on a concrete wall and then drop into homages to the graphic hand of David Hockney. Cyan stains in Speech seem ripped from a Helen Frankenthaler or coalesce into a sky over misty mountains. Close up the paint's body is an obvious theme in the show. But taking a few steps back and figurative wholes emerge, images of desolation and private ennui.
Scanning the culture for premonitions of doom, Schutz co-opts them for her own creative bent. Schutz takes what she finds in our anxieties and uses it as an engine for her practice, churning through 'exhausted' strategies with abandon. Whether or not our greenhouse gas emissions spell collective doom isn't really the subject of Schutz's paintings, rather it serves as an alibi for her meandering path of art historical citation. Moving from reference to reference, technique to technique, Schutz plays the game of questioning whether her nostalgic mash-ups are the end of the game, or the start of something new.
SEAN MONAHAN RISD '09 advocates painting with nuclear waste.