Ever feel jammed up, disrespected, misunderstood, humiliated, alone? My friend, the paintings of Dana Schutz are for you.
Schutz makes extraordinary paintings, rambunctious, bright, and pained all at once, and her themes spring straight from the parts of ourselves we hide. Her self-titled show, at the Institute of Contemporary Art through Nov. 26, is a pageant of shame, fear, sorrow, and exhausted surrender to chaos.
And it crackles with luscious brushwork, frenetic compositions, and caffeinated colors.
Schutz became a flashpoint for protest earlier this year, after “Open Casket,” her painting of the body of young, murdered Emmett Till, was included in the Whitney Biennial. Schutz is white. The painting, which is not in this show, has sparked debates about white privilege, cultural appropriation, and representation of race. Protesters have released an open letter to the ICA, asking the museum to shut down the exhibition. The ICA has no plans to do so, but will hold an open forum, “Representation and Responsibility in Creative Space,” in September.
The controversy has flattened the artist into a symbol. Or rather, two: To some she has become an avatar of racial oppression, to others a champion of artistic freedom. Either way, it distracts from her barbed, gorgeous, and humane art.
Schutz’s brawny, cubist paintings crowd and jostle from all sides. They don’t stop. But her dashing strokes and tangy palette are like a warm host beckoning us to the party. Her figures crouch, reach, and contort into abstraction. She may switch points of view several times in one painting. She has us giddily searching for our bearings.
Meanwhile, her canvases home in on the struggles of having to live in a world with other people, and indeed the exasperations of having to live with one’s self. The poor woman in “Slow Motion Shower,” like many of Schutz’s figures, is too large for her space. Even alone in her tub, she doesn’t fit. She scrunches under the shower head, soapy eyes squinched shut. I wanted to wrap her in a blanket and get her tea and toast.
The artist poses hypothetical visual problems, and paints her way to solutions. What does it look like to slow time in a shower? Or to build a boat on the water?
“Building the Boat While Sailing,” a big, marvelously hectic painting, ironically depicts a lot of lassitude in a crowd trapped on a raft. But the real question here is: What is it like to make a painting?
Dreamers, incompetents, and, yes, a few industrious types take up all the space on Schutz’s raft. Two figures with teeth like beavers gnaw at the wood. Three others idly spit water. Fellows who look like Jackson Pollock and Bruce Nauman lie around. These characters might be Schutz’s work ethic, her distractions, and her inspirations as she tries to erect with paint a functional vessel on the precarious waters of the unconscious.
Chief curator Eva Respini compares Schutz’s large-scale canvases to history paintings. In her label for “Building the Boat,” Respini invokes towering depictions of pivotal moments: Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s heroic “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” and Théodore Géricault’s dire “The Raft of the Medusa,” which poeticizes the imminent rescue of starving people lost at sea.
In her big paintings, Schutz monumentalizes inner chatter and everyday trivialities. Look at “Shaking Out the Bed,” an antic, wheeling picture of a sleepy couple spooning.
It’s larger than life, at nearly 18 feet wide. The heads and arms are all slashing wedges of pink. Cups of coffee, a hammer, what might be a slice of pepperoni pizza, coins, and bills surround them. The bed collapses in on itself — or perhaps opens out, bouncing its contents toward us like a trampoline.
“Shaking Out the Bed” is a fairly cozy domestic scene, if a whiz-bang compositional roller coaster. More often, Schutz’s paintings jump between mythic meditations and naked revelations of everyday torpor and pain.
Her themes are inward, intimate, and often uncomfortably familiar. If we’re still at the party with the friendly host, we’re getting a glimpse under the skin of the guests. They’re all raw. One guy has a terrible headache, the couple over there is avoiding everyone, and another pair fumes at each other. Some of these paintings are outright portraits of anguish.
The broad-shouldered figure in “Shame” burns tawny red here, greenish red there, always blushing. His body folds in on itself, as if trying to shrink. Respini says Schutz painted “Shame” around the time of last year’s election, stirring in national ignominy with personal chagrin.
I could not help but read some of Schutz’s paintings as acutely tuned to the moment. “Big Wave,” inspired by “Lido,” Max Beckmann’s 1924 beach painting, depicts two girls obliviously playing in the sand as a wave looms, churning with figures and giant fish. Like Beckmann, Schutz flattens space; the wave is within pouncing distance.
Is it a picture of waters rising? Or other sharks on our doorstep — which we choose to ignore?
Ultimately, Schutz is not a social commentator. She’s a painter, using paint to try to make sense of the pressure cooker of living. “Elevator,” another sizable canvas, depicts gleaming doors sliding shut on a heaving crowd of people, writhing like worms in a can.
Heads tilt, limbs jut and crook, and one giant hand reaches tentatively — or protectively — upward. Faces are garish, slashed with paint in red, orange, and plum. Strangely, a man on the left rolls wallpaper onto the wall. All we really know is that space is closing in. That may be true, in some ways, in real life. But it’s also a terrific problem for a painter to try to solve.
At Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through Nov. 26. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.