Dana Schutz, Sneeze, 2002. Oil on canvas, 19 5/8 x 18 3/4 inches (49.8 x 47.6 cm). Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York. © Dana Schutz
Dana Schutz paints abstracted figures in the midst of outlandish, gruesome, or humiliating situations. She begins by visualizing an absurd or impossible event––figures eating their own faces, carving shapes into their necks, or attempting to smoke cigarettes while swimming underwater––and proceeds to ask herself questions about the theoretical incident. Through these questions, Schutz imagines not only how the given situation might materialize visually, but also the feelings that would be associated with it. The resulting images are imaginative, humorous, and borderline sadistic in the treatment of their subjects. In its bright colors and loose brushstrokes, Schutz’s work recalls cartoons or children’s book illustrations, generating a strange contrast with the sinister circumstances it depicts.
Sneeze shows a graphic illustration of a physical event most sitters would prefer not to have immortalized in a portrait. Mucus from a woman’s nose, portrayed in exaggerated strokes of yellow, green, and blue paint, has sprayed several inches before ricocheting off her open palms. The painting might be called an “anti-portrait”; instead of presenting the sitter as dignified, it shows her at her most unappealing. The painting also departs from traditional portraits by capturing a momentary and involuntary pose that a subject would not have been able to hold long enough to have it documented.
Dana Schutz is an accomplished painter whose canvases have been seen in the tradition of the grotesque represented by artists from Francisco Goya to Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon. Sneeze joins works by other important quasi-representational contemporary painters in the ICA/Boston collection, including Ree Morton, Joan Semmel, and Amy Sillman.