Impossible Pictures

Dana Schutz: Imagine Me and You

an exhibition at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York City, January 10–February 23, 2019
The Visible World by Dana Schutz
Dana Schutz/Petzel, New York
Dana Schutz: The Visible World, 108 x 140 inches, 2018

Many of the paintings in Dana Schutz’s extraordinary recent exhibition of new work are on the face of it preposterous, even grotesque. In The Visible World, which like most of the other canvases and the bronze sculptures in the show is dated 2018, a nude woman with big, flat, gargoyle eyes is languidly stretched out on a rock at sea, unconcerned about the huge storm clouds gathering behind her. She isn’t unduly bothered either by an immense bird, possibly an albatross, that is standing on her thigh and holding in its beak a raspberry the size of a basketball. In Boatman, a little white rowboat in a green, watery setting is making its way toward us, carrying a man with a strangely formed, darkened face and a misshapen ear and, on his lap, a devilish puppetlike character, a kind of scary Pinocchio (see illustration on page 38).

Set in a washing machine (a first for me), Washing Monsters presents an apprehensive fellow in a suit who may be a monster himself and who is accompanied in the cycle by an actual monster or two and rising soap bubbles. Also a first, Treadmill gives us someone on an exercise machine who is clearly on overdrive and has come to resemble a fish or a steamed lobster. The strangely powerful The Wanderer shows an omnipotent-seeming and somewhat frightening babyish person—most of Schutz’s figures are larger than life-size—who clutches an umbrella and is wearing only jockey shorts and what might be an Apple Watch on his ankle.

Part of what makes these paintings not grotesque and yet difficult to pin down is that the scenes are gently atmospheric. There are not many hard or sharp edges in them, and the sensation of a permeating soft airiness—of all this strangeness taking place in a realm that is dreamy yet real—undercuts what might initially appear expressionistic or ghoulish. There is, rather, a human warmth to these works and, given their impressive sizes—The Visible World is over eleven feet wide and it is not the biggest—a grandeur, too. We can forget that we are looking at monsters or oddities.

With its vamp on a rock, The Visible World might seem at first like a send-up of an image by Théodore Géricault or Eugène Delacroix of survival at sea. There is unquestioningly something ridiculous about her big, unmatching green eyes and her absurd bird companion. Yet her Bette Davis–like persona is merely one of several lively elements that hold us—details such as a suggestion of a face on a nearby rock, green ring-like shapes rising from the sea, and the sketchiest image of an advancing steamship. In other pictures we stop before small passages in rich colors on faces, or that might represent drops of…

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