By EVE HILL-AGNUS January 10, 2024
I do not recommend seeing Dana Schutz’s exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, Le Monde Visible, first thing in the morning—not if you are squeamish; not if you are uneasy about the state of the self or the world. And yet it should be required, the way attending Greek plays was required in that ancient society, their catharsis considered crucial to the republic.
The exhibition, according to the design of French curator Anaël Pigeat, oscillates between the individual and the collective. In the individual mode, Brooklyn-based Schutz, for whom this is the first retrospective in France—with the David Zwirner solo show Jupiter’s Lottery in Chelsea wedged during its run— creates moments of shame and horror. In Sneeze, a blonde woman expels a gust of mucus and wind, a powerful expulsion rendered in thick globs of paint. It whacks the viewer in the face with bodily reality. Boundaries, in fact, are breached in the myriad of images of carnal mayhem that pepper the exhibition. As an example, mouths eat their own faces and seem to smack their lips in Face Eater, 2004.
Bodies are distorted, inverted, mangled. Their parts are inventoried, organized, arranged, as in the gruesome, unsettling Twin Parts (2004). Here, racks of mutilated appendages have been carefully arranged—anatomizing taken to the extreme. In New Legs (2003), a character assembles new limbs for herself from mechanical-looking parts. In this game of deranged “what-ifs?” that Schutz’s mind seems to play, the colors are lurid Pepto Bismol pinks and grays and sickly chartreuse—the saturated, high-tone values that she manipulates with bravura.
Always, order and chaos jostle, and possible utopias turn dystopic. In the group mode, she creates large, tumultuous scenes of wholesale turbulence in which cartoonish, bubble-headed characters gesticulate wildly or are absorbed in bafflingly inscrutable tasks. They often tussle, creating a fracas that can seem to place them in the position of sailors in a ship of fools, (See Boat Group, 2020, where this is literally the case.)
In Mountain Group (2018), the characters are teetering on a summit point upward—but towards what? There seems to be a prime mover, but of what kind? An organizing principle, maybe, but it’s mysterious. And that is perhaps the most unsettling thought of all. (Maybe the answers would ring like tautologies if they were even decipherable. Or the questioners may simply be stymied forever.)
Schutz’s world-building vacillates between luxuriant foliage and barren wasteland, faux-Edenic garden or landscape after the fall. And no matter how gory the scene, a wry or acerbic humor bubbles up, she is the great, consummate commentator.
Everywhere, Schutz as storyteller triumphs. Strikingly, both kinds of narratives play out on stages. Sometimes the literal stage of a TED Talk; sometimes the “stage” of a blank wall, as in Public Process (2022), in which a coterie of characters negotiates a divided space. A figure in the foreground is giving birth and painting, a private moment in a roiling public scene.
If Schutz deals in stages, they are also circuses, allegories and parodies. What is happening? A play? A myth? A nightmare? Her pictures read like grotesque fairy tales.
But if they are allegories, they can be interpreted in multiple ways, confounding the viewer. The deciphering of legible/illegible becomes a mystery and allegorical act in itself, pointing to our reading of the world, of ourselves. What do we make of the violence we find? Is all sound and fury? She seems to place a spotlight on folly.
And then, just as you reel, the sculptures that punctuate the show two-thirds of the way through the galleries are judiciously placed to rhythm the retrospective. Bulbous, craggy and voluminous, they’re depictions mostly of bodies. She has made them herself. “That’s part of the power,” Pigeat points out, “to act and create alone. It’s true of the painting and of the sculpture.” (I love the prints as well, which quietly depict monstrous faces.)
In the last third, you move toward clarity: in skylit rooms, the largest canvases lurk. Is there a kind of wisdom after we have confronted the grotesque? But Schutz’s wisdom is precisely in the melee. In her ability to pin us in front of the question: Are we at the end of the world—the apocalypse—or the moment after, the rebuilding? Both. Schutz would seem to suggest both. Dana Schutz, Le Monde Visible is on view at Musée d’art moderne de Paris through February 11, 2024. WM
Eve Hill-Agnus is a Franco-American writer, editor, and translator based in Paris, France. She earned her BA and MA from Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA). Formerly an award-winning dining critic and magazine staff writer, she now contributes art criticism to Patron, D Magazine, and other publications with a particular focus on women artists and equity. She frequently also writes and translates gallery texts. She is Communications Manager for the 100 W – Corsicana Artist and Writer Residency based in Corsicana, TX.view all articles from this author