A conversation with curator Eva Respini on Dana Schutz at the ICA
The first thing that struck me about these paintings was their size. How did that affect your curation of them?
Yeah, you know, the canvases are monumental and, I think for me, the scale is actually one of the most transporting, unique, and singular parts of her practice. In thinking about the show, we actually were thinking of anchors—there are four, I would say, really monumental works in the show, and there’s one in each room. The way we started organizing the show and talking about what the themes would be and how it would unfold in space was thinking about those anchors and thinking about those monumental canvases as a world all to themselves. The physicality, the experience you have as a viewer when you stand before them—it’s hard to explain it before someone’s been there. One really has to be physically before it and feeling very much that you’re enveloped in that world.
Each time I walked through the exhibition I would notice things that I swear hadn’t been there just moments before. My third time walking through, I was still noticing new things, particularly in Shaking Out the Bed.
I would say you’re not the only person; I’ve had the same experience even as we were installing the works, which I’ve seen now many times. Particularly Building the Boat While Sailing and Shaking Out the Bed, there’s a decoding that happens on the part of the viewer. In Building the Boat While Sailing—I actually just noticed for the first time—this kind of sea monster that’s lurking below the boat with its mouth open, with these sharp teeth as if it’s about to swallow the boat. That’s one thing I hadn’t seen before, this kind of underwater threat that’s on the bottom right of the canvas and maybe in reproductions can’t even be seen—it’s something that needs to be seen in person. So that experience is absolutely part of the experience of looking—her works really demand an active looking on the part of the viewers.
What makes Dana tick as an artist? There are works that seem really politically motivated, stuff that’s really timely, and then there are things that are really personal and anxious and isolated.
I think that is absolutely accurate, and the way that I think about Dana is that I think of her as a painter of the human condition and all that means—in its banalities, in its absurdities, in its anxieties. In the show you have the everyday people lying in bed, taking a shower, getting dressed, carpooling—and then there are these fantastical, absurd, vulnerable struggles and I think that’s also part of the human condition. And the way in which she uses scale as well as expressive color palette as well as composition. This sense of compression that we see in a lot of the large canvases, in particular, to me are very much a common thought or reflection on our current moment and what it mean to live in a divisive sociopolitical time, but also what it means to live in a time of abstracted social relationships. So if one thinks as her as sort of a commentator on the human condition at large, all of those things, even those leaps of imagination, these absurd scenes are very much a part of what it means to be human in a very sort of fundamental way.
How would you summarize Dana’s role in contemporary art?
She’s a very astute student of the history of art and, particularly, the history of painting. I think she’s one of the leading figures who is revitalizing the medium today. As we know, it’s been declared dead many times and revived many times, but I do think her work in painting is really pushing forward the medium and making it an inviting, exciting place for discussion and engagement. I think what she’s done particularly well, if you think about history painting, is really upending that tradition where what we usually see with history paintings are heroic acts from history, allegory from the Bible. She, instead, is rethinking that genre by monumentalizing the banal. For example, Shaking Out the Bed is a couple lying in bed—snoozing, spooning in bed—and so, for me, she’s really upending those kind of hierarchical categories and really taking them on in very contemporary ways.
What do you make of the controversy surrounding her right now? It feels kind of ridiculous to me, but it’s an interesting conversation.
Absolutely. I think her inclusion in the Whitney Biennial with the painting Open Casket—for me, that painting was a kind of flashpoint, not just for me but for many people, around conversations of race, representation, and cultural appropriation. That is absolutely an important and difficult conversation to have. I would say it’s one of the biggest topics of our time and it’s a topic that’s far bigger than one artist or one painting. Museums are a place where we can engage in those conversations and have the artist’s voice present. I don’t think a call to canceling a show or taking down and destroying a painting furthers that dialogue; I would argue the opposite—that our mission as a cultural institution and as a civic institution is to put forward those ideas and engage in a dialogue with our public, not to shy away from it.
DANA SCHUTZ. THROUGH 11.26 AT THE INSTITUTE OF CONTEMPORARY ART BOSTON, 25 HARBOR SHORE DR., BOSTON. ICABOSTON.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.