Dissection and dismemberment abound in Dana Schutz’s work, all offset by sunny colors and a pert sense of humor. Among other things, she has created a race of people who eat themselves; a guy called Frank who is the last man on Earth; a gravity-phobic person who has tied herself to the ground; and a variety of characters that are spliced, for different reasons, on operating tables. Schutz loves to give her characters life and then cut them up. Yet hers is a blithe cruelty, the curiosity of a child playing at being a creator. Even when she hates, she does it with whimsy. Currently, there are only two real objects of her rancor—our current president and her former landlord. And so she dreams of George W. Bush in a wildly inappropriate beach orgy, and kills off her landlord in a fairy-tale fashion—creating a bad end for a bad man. Her work is sadistic but not sinister, witty but not acid, and free of grown-up vengeance. Often, her most graphic images are her most cheerful. The Self-Eaters series, for instance, are not portraits of men and women consumed with self-loathing. Rather, they are Schutz’s vision of a self-sufficient race—they eat themselves, and rebuild themselves out of their own feces.
Schutz’s work is remarkable for its lack of angst, which is peculiar from someone not even 30. She grew up in suburban Michigan and lives in New York, yet her canvases vibrate with jungle heat. Telling is her Self-Portrait as a Pachyderm, which, as she confessed to one interviewer, she made up because she wanted to be “thick-skinned.” But she does not grant the same courtesy to her subjects. Even when they are dressed they are naked, as if they have been flayed.
With several solo shows, a number of paintings at the Saatchi gallery and a gargantuan canvas at the MoMA, Schutz remains winsome and candid, unpretentious but articulate—all Midwestern generosity and grins. She is quietly, but firmly self-assured. She respects the artistic legacy that precedes her (Currin, Goya, Kippenberger, Katz), but she is not dictated by them. She has simply—to use a word that Schutz might employ herself—digested them and carried on.
Dana Schutz sat down with me last November at the New York Academy of Art on a BombLive! evening to discuss her brand of merry macabre. This interview was co-sponsored by and recorded live by WPS1.org at the New York Academy of Art on November 2, 2005, as part of the BOMBLive! The Figure in Narrative series.
Mei Chin I’m going to start off with a pragmatic question. As an artist, how do you structure your day?
Dana Schutz I’m a night painter, so usually I’ll wake up around eleven or noon, get coffee and then go to the studio. I listen to a lot of talk radio in the studio during the day, NPR or Air America, or if I’m painting really late, I might listen to right-wing talk radio just to get angry: that keeps me awake. Usually before I start making a painting I’ll sketch or write lists of ideas for paintings that may or may not end up being made. Like: paint a stuffed-animal fight, or a time machine, or a boy with handmade features getting a haircut. That will get things going. I’ll mix paint for a really long time, and then I’ll start painting. I moved from Harlem to Brooklyn a few months back. I’m in a studio building with a lot of great artists, friends that I went to school with. It’s important to me—there’s a lot of social activity during the day, but you can still go in there and work.
MC It sounds a bit like a dormitory.
DS Well, no one lives there, and people respect one another. There is no vomit in the hallway. I like it because you can see what people are working on, and you can take a break and have conversations about art or anything at all.
MC Do you ever get blocked? Do you ever have a week, or maybe a month, when you can’t work? How do you deal with that?
DS I do get blocked. And if I’m not painting, I get really tense. When I am blocked I start drawing, writing, thinking about different ideas and reading. Sometimes I’ll respond to things that I’ve just made. I think it’s part of the process to get frustrated and then get a bunch of new ideas.
MC You’re definitely one of the more fictional artists. In a lot of your paintings, it feels as though you’ve invented not only the scenes, but also the characters and the faces. I’ve read in a few interviews that you actually give your characters their own back-stories. Can you tell me about that?
DS I don’t write out stories, in the way a writer would; the situations are very loose. I never want the viewer to have to know the whole story to “get” the painting. What you see is what you get. If it’s a painting of a person eating their hands, they’re eating their hands. Often I will invent hypothetical situations that can act as surrogate situations for conditions that I am thinking about and that I always feel are logical. For example, the Last Man on Earth series came from the question, “What would this person look like if there was only one other person on earth to say what he looked like?” There is this sense that you always need someone else to check reality with. The paintings never went into the details of how we would find food or what we would do together as the last people on earth. It was more about Frank as a subject, how he would change from painting to painting. And what would happen if I got really sick of him? Then I could take him apart and build other things out of him, but he was a material that was there to work with, perhaps one of the only materials.
Audience Member Dana, when you’re talking about an audience outside of the painting, you’re talking about you in relation to the painting and the characters in it, not the viewer. Could you talk more about your relationship to the painting as its audience?
DS With The Last Man on Earth, if I’m painting this man, then I’m the last painter and he’s the last subject. In that way, he’s the only audience for these paintings—or the only objective audience, since I’m still the painter. In that situation would these paintings then function as art, or would they have some other function? Does he need them in order to see himself? Maybe he needs them, to exist. Maybe that’s the only way he can exist. I was thinking of the paintings as real artifacts from that invented situation. As the series was going on, I questioned whether I should fictionalize my role as the artist. Should the paintings be made by a person who was actually in that isolated situation—paintings made by a potentially crazy person? In the end I decided against it because I felt it was more interesting and more uncomfortable for me to have to stand behind these paintings and my decision to paint them in the way that I chose to. I also started painting objects that would wash up from the world: things that would no longer have a clear function if they were broken, like a record player. What then does that object become? Does it acquire another function? I usually want a starting point to make a painting. Whether it’s an invented framework, or a situation in the world. Maybe the painting isn’t even about that in the end. But even in the fictional situation, there are all these potential ways to get information.
MC I’m curious, with your Self-Eaters series, for example, or your Frank From Observation series, whether you begin with an end in mind.
DS The self-eaters were constantly recycling themselves and remaking themselves out of their own digested material. The thing about Frank was that he could be killed off and brought back to life. There was a lot of horizon in those paintings; time could be malleable. People usually move to locations with a lot of horizon, like the sea, when they are about to die. Maybe because they feel that they can see infinity. In these paintings there weren’t any events going on, no markers of time. There was never any clear end in mind, or really even a beginning. I never thought: So this is how we all ended up getting there. I thought about what Frank did before he was the last subject. I thought maybe he worked in an office. He had a comb-over that has now grown out. He only had a chair and an old work shirt, and then he had no shirt at all. And the chair could become any number of things, like a shelter, a guitar, a camera, or a sculpture. The Self-Eaters were so cyclical. Narrative-wise they were looser; they spun off into different directions. I don’t consider the paintings narrative in any linear way, so there is no narrative structure, in the way there can be in literature.
MC Did you feel that you were being mean to Frank? You disassembled him—killed him—a number of times.
DS Well, there’s the idea that maybe he doesn’t really exist anyway. Who’s to say, if I’m the only other person on earth? But to answer your question, I never felt that I was being mean to him, because he could always come back to life.
MC Yes, but that would be your decision.
DS There were moments when I empathized with him, like if he was really sunburned. I never felt guilty about taking him apart, because he would just become something else. He’s a fictional character; there is no consequence in him coming to an end.
MC I was just looking at your Self-Portrait as a Pachyderm , which a lot of people have seen as being very sad. I interpret it differently. In that painting, you’re hiding behind all these layers of skin, whereas a lot of your subjects are really stripped naked and vulnerable. Do you think that it’s your privilege as the artist to be able to hide behind layers of skin while you strip your other subjects’ skin away?
DS No, not really. I felt that I treated myself in that portrait in the same manner as one of the self-made figures from the Self-Eaters series.
MC But you’re essentially hiding.
DS I guess that could be part of it. There is a swell in that painting; a lot of paint is built up on the surface or underneath the skin of the paint. I had done that before in other paintings, where parts of the painting would protrude in places where features should protrude in the image. But I liked how that self-portrait was more irrational. The swells would occur in places were they shouldn’t, places in the image that are meant to recede in space. I guess the skin was covering something. But I felt that that painting was liberating, or at least optimistic.
MC Where did you get all your crazy landscapes? I see them as jungle. But you are a Michigan girl who studied in Cleveland and then came to New York. So where did the jungle come from?
DS In those paintings I was gravitating toward spaces that could function as a clear space where invention is possible. I was interested in the fragmented space of the woods as a pictorial device and also as a way to jump between different modes of representation. But lately I am trying to steer clear of the woods. When I begin a painting I think of what I want to paint, and then think, “Well, where is it? What kind of space is it in?” Sometimes I would think of landscapes from Michigan or places I had been. All of these spaces in the paintings are extremely constructed. That’s part of the beginning of the picture, to think: “Where is it? What’s going on there? What’s the weather like?” (laughter)
MC How did you start? I guess it’s a really crass question, but how did you decide that you wanted to be a painter? You were in Michigan, and at some point you started creating these fantasies. Did the suburbs of Michigan have something to do with it?
DS I used to play the flute in high school. My mom was a junior high art teacher and I didn’t want to make art, because she did. But when I was in high school, it started to excite me. My parents were really cool, they let me use the basement as my own space. It was really fun; it felt like I was involved in something, and I didn’t know very many other people who were involved in it. It was really romantic at first. I went to the Cleveland Institute of Art, but I always wanted to come to New York. That was something that I romanticized too—New York City. Moving here was very exciting. Oh, and I stopped playing the flute a long time ago. (laughter)
MC Was paint your first medium? Was it abstract?
DS I first began drawing and painting and making sculpture. Mostly it was figurative, more or less, or representations of abstraction.
Audience Member Are there any abstract painters who you respond to, or whose work has influenced you?
DS I’m interested in the CoBrA group, and Kandinsky. I’ve been thinking about European abstract painting from the turn of the century. This strain of abstraction wasn’t as overdetermined as American postwar abstraction. Kandinsky’s paintings weren’t aiming to define themselves, but are about intangible sensations, like trying to represent music.
MC Where do your visions come from? I don’t think of you as a particularly morbid painter, but people could.
DS The paintings are not autobiographical. Only recently have I started painting some of the things in my life. I respond to what I think is happening in the world. The hypotheticals in the paintings can act as surrogates or narratives for phenomena that I feel are happening in culture. In the paintings, I think in terms of adjectives and adverbs. Often I will get information from people or things that I see, a phrase, or how one object relates to another. I construct the paintings as I go along.
Audience Member Would you talk more about your technical process? You mentioned coming up with words that inspire you, or attitudes or situations, and turning that into a visual image.
DS When I make sketches, they’re not finished drawings, but really rough; I use them to figure out how things will fit in the rectangle of the painting. How big should a head be? Stuff like that. I rarely draw directly on the canvas. When I’m starting a painting, a lot of times I’ll just start with a wash on the ground and I’ll mix a lot of colors beforehand—like 50—because I don’t like to stop when I’m painting. Then I’ll respond to those and mix other colors to change them. A lot of times I’ll paint a space and then put another space or a character on top of it. It’s really a process of building things.
MC Your last show was called Teeth Dreams and Other Supposed Truths and included the idea of dreams, neurosis and paranoia. Does it come from yourself, did you pick it up in a book, or . . . ?
DS Despite the title, those paintings are in no way about dreams, nor did they come from dreams. In some cases I was taking things directly from what was happening in the media. I was thinking of distractions and symptoms for contemporary situations and how they’re mythologized. For example, I painted a picture of a men’s retreat. That’s a situation I could never have access to—I could never go to a men’s retreat. So that became a site that could only be imagined. The painting is inherently a conspiracy painting. I was interested in the performance of assumed “primitive” rituals carried out in order for these men to locate some notion of truth or nature. Supposedly the American business suit is modeled after the gorilla; it’s all shoulders and bulk, not tailored like the European suit. I also painted The Autopsy of Michael Jackson. In some ways he’s the most self-made man there is, to the point of it becoming really scary. I was thinking of the painting as a photograph that hasn’t been taken yet. I posited all these question around Michael Jackson’s death: How does he die? How old is he? What shape is he in? What does he look like naked? He ended up looking like just a dead man. Which for me was very strange. I ended up having sympathy for him. There is an immortality about him in life. In the painting there is an autopsy incision alluding to his insides, which is intrusive and contradicts the constant reforming of his external features. In the painting he is very mortal.
MC But the title Teeth Dreams implies a classic neurosis, the dream of losing one’s teeth. Was that tapping into a personal neurosis, or just, as you imply, a strictly cultural one? Do you ever paint your own fears?
DS Well, teeth dreams definitely are terrible. But I don’t paint my own fears. To tell the truth, I’m not exactly sure what my specific fears are, or if I have any. Teeth dreams are supposed to be castration dreams, right? I called the show that because dream meaning is based on interpretation; these interpretations can be accurate or they also can be pure projection.
MC You recently started incorporating well-known figures in your work. What was the motive behind that? Besides Michael Jackson, there’s PJ Harvey—
DS She was earlier on. I always think of that painting as a performance. I was in some way trying to approximate the energy of her or her music. The painting is also very tall. There is something performative about painting something so much taller than you, and vertical. Vertical paintings can be confrontational, a difficult space to project into.
MC The Breeders was earlier as well: Frank being disassembled as The Breeders.
DS I initially thought that I’d paint all these pictures of Frank and he would be different in each one. Then I thought that I could turn him into other people, or that he could be a group of people with a function—like a rock band. At that point I bought a Breeders CD, so really there was no pun intended. I wanted to turn him into The Breeders; they have two female members and so he was turned into two women. He was turned into the event on stage and then I became the last audience. With the painting of PJ Harvey, I was thinking of her as being this kind of sculptural goddess. I never really know what to say about the paintings of the women musicians, other than that I was interested in painting them because they are strong women.
MC So many of your characters seem to be either sculpting or being sculpted, whether it’s out of their own shit, or out of each other’s body parts. Are you still experimenting with sculpture yourself?
DS I’ve been thinking about it. When you’re painting pictures of sculptural objects, you don’t have to worry about gravity. They’re kind of in-between: a stand-in for something real, but also something material. I definitely want to make sculptures, but I always have this problem of knowing where the sculpture ends: Should it be on a base? Is that the dividing element between reality and the sculpture? How does a sculpture negotiate reality? I feel that in paintings I propose a reality initially and then it can go off from there. I never think about them as being surreal because they are paintings of invented things that operate under their own set of logical conditions. The subjects are very much involved in their own actuality or self-actualizing process.
MC One thing I’ve been dying to ask you is: Did you read fairy tales as a kid? That’s something that always comes up when I look at your paintings.
DS I read them when I was a kid, but I think the paintings relate more to satire. The paintings are not so much like fairy tales. I’m probably more interested in science fiction than other forms of fantasy. I like the sense of place or history that can mirror social realities and events and anxieties. I like Animal Farm, superheroes and mix-ups at the lab, disaster films, and practically anything about epidemics. Maybe these speak more about my fears! I’m not interested in my paintings as being moralistic and they probably engage more burlesque forms of satire. Often the premise for a painting is something that is already in the public imagination, like “the last man on Earth” or “you are what you eat.” For example, take a person who could eat their head. I imagine that would be a really hard thing to do. How would I begin to paint that? What would it entail? However, it is really important that the paintings do not hole up in their own realm of fantasy. I want the paintings to take into account what’s going on outside them.
MC Where did the Self-Eaters paintings come from? I love that series.
DS I was thinking about abstract painting and painting large women and started to feel really lost. At that point there weren’t a lot of other people in the studio building, and I was there all day long by myself. So I started making drawings of people who could eat themselves and liked them more than what I was painting at that time. But I remember thinking: I can’t make paintings out of these things. They’re really garish. They look like therapy. I didn’t want to do that. But I thought they could be abstract paintings because they were so self-involved, very structural. I started thinking of the different ways people could eat themselves. Then I thought: Well, that’s not enough. Then what happens? What if they can remake themselves in any form they want to be? Would what they make be considered art? For instance, if you could make your own leg, it would be like survival of the fittest. But you’d have to be pretty good at making it, otherwise you would be screwed. Anyway, I started to think that they wouldn’t need to travel, or find food, or talk to each other because they wouldn’t need to reproduce: they were autonomous! So then I thought maybe there could be this reformed group that would attempt to form a community. They could build a building together. But they would have to self-sacrifice to provide building material, and they are still pretty base, and soon wars begin to break out. Some of them eat the building. The situation is on the cusp of chaos.
Audience Member Are the people eating themselves a metaphor for something specific, or is it open to interpretation?
DS It’s open for interpretation. Initially I wondered what kind of people are these, are they compulsive, or manic? I started to feel that maybe they had no idea they’re even doing it. They can’t even see themselves as something separate from their context. When they started to build the building together, to reconstruct things, I was definitely thinking about contemporary situations.
Audience Member Your career has exploded in the past two years. Is that a double-edged sword, because the art world is such a marketplace? Is there a lot of pressure to maintain your “brand” as a successful painter?
DS No. The market is not my concern in making the paintings. Where it gets bad is when people stop seeing the work and start seeing the system outside it. If people stop seeing what’s going on in the paintings and only see them for their market value, which they definitely can do, then I feel conflicted. I start feeling like I should complicate how my work functions in that system. There are artists working in that vein and I find their practice admirable and important. But, you know, primarily, I’m interested in making these things. I like my everyday life; I have this community around me. Everything still feels the same—kind of. I mean, I’m up here on this stage, which is weird, but I still have the same friends and we talk about art, not the art market.
MC How do you project where you’re going, stylistically?
DS I thought that I didn’t want to paint any more situations or narratives. But now I’m thinking of more situations, despite myself. It just comes through painting. I don’t set out to paint a series. As I’m making the paintings, I find that I will gravitate to one idea over another.
MC What are you working on now?
DS I’m painting a man with a mustache. You know how young people wear a mustache to be nostalgic or maybe with a little irony? But then they just become a man with a mustache. I’m painting that man. I’m thinking about a lot of different things right now. It’s kind of an in-between time for me. I might scrap the painting tomorrow.
Audience Member Going back to Mei Chin’s first question this evening, what is the first thing you will do tomorrow morning?
DS I’m going to go back to that man in the mustache! (laughter) The horizon’s not working out, so I might move that tonight. It’s hard to answer questions like, “What are you working on now?” I feel like I’m in that mode where things are shifting around. I just want to go home and paint.
—Mei Chin is a writer living in New York. She has written for Saveur, Fiction, the New York Times, and Vogue. She was the recipient of the M. F. K. Fischer Distinguished Writing Award last May.