Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Dana Schutz Paints the Impossible by Starting with Questions

How does a painter begin to paint the impossible? For Dana Schutz, who doesn’t paint from observation or photographic sources, the process of visualizing events no one has ever seen before begins in her imagination and involves both asking a lot of questions and methodically developing answers. Often, one of those questions is not “What does an action look like?” but “What does it feel like?” In order to communicate feelings, Schutz relies on evocative titles, dozens of colors developed through hours of mixing paint, lists of possibilities to consider, and numerous sketches. For viewers walking through Dana Schutz: If the Face Had Wheels, impossible scenarios become plausible and physical sensations take visual form.

In Sneeze, one of the first works you’ll see when you enter the gallery, the artist records what the mundane mini-event of the title really feels like. Thick rows of paint squeezed directly from the tube appear to force the eyes to shut tightly as the nose explodes with what the body is trying to expel. The sneezer’s face registers the emotions that accompany the surprise attack. The painting records not what happens when bodily control is temporarily lost during a sneeze, but what it feels like to be in the process of sneezing, something we literally cannot see since our eyes automatically close during the act.

Dana Schutz, Face Eater, 2004. Oil paint on canvas, 23 x 18 in. The Saatchi Gallery, London. © Dana Schutz. Courtesy of the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

Dana Schutz, Face Eater, 2004. Oil paint on canvas, 23 x 18 in. The Saatchi Gallery, London. © Dana Schutz. Courtesy of the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

To prepare for her Self-Eater series, which depicts people in the midst of devouring their own bodies, Schutz began by imagining how someone would begin such an act. For example, if one were going to eat her own face, would she use her upper teeth to bite her lower jaw, or her bottom teeth to eat her nose? The artist must also consider how decisions about composition, color, and paint application determine the look of these impossible scenes. As she began the painting Face Eater, Schutz wondered where the eyes should appear on the canvas. For the artist, eyes serve as a focal point of a face, and help viewers to identify with the subject, even if that subject is doing something inconceivable. In Face Eater, the eyes fill the center of the painting with a hypnotic reminder that the creature doing this bizarre act is supposed to be human. In fact, as odd as many of the scenarios she creates may seem, the works in this 10-year survey of her career explore, in part, the strangeness of what it feels, and means, to be human.

Image credit: Dana Schutz, Sneeze, 2001. Oil paint on canvas, 19 x 19 in. Collection of Carlo Bronzini Vender. © Dana Schutz. Courtesy of the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York

Renée B. Miller is the curatorial assistant in the modern and contemporary department. Renée has been at the DAM since 2008. She recommends that visitors don’t miss Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on level 2 of the Hamilton Building.