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April 2, 2008

Dana Schutz

Shortly after New York-based artist Dana Schutz graduated from Columbia University's prestigious MFA program in 2002, she wowed critics and collectors with her first solo show, Frank from Observation, at New York's LFL Gallery. Since then, major institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art have added her colorful, innovative works to their collections. Fresh from her second solo outing at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin, Schutz spoke to Artkrush editor Paul Laster about her work and a painter's lifestyle.

AK:  You've been making art since an early age. How did you develop that passion?

DS:  I've always drawn and painted, but I was 15 when I consciously thought for the first time, "I want to be an artist." What most appealed to me at that age was having control over what I put in the space of a painting and the solitary activity of making art. In high school, I painted anytime I got the chance — I would paint during lunch, skip class to paint in a storage closet, and paint every night. I didn't know anything about contemporary art or even that there were living artists; I just assumed you had be dead to be in an art book and that anything you made would have to be discovered one day— maybe in the back of that storage closet.

AK:  How do you begin a new piece?

DS:  I write a lot, make lists, and draw. I don't draw directly on the canvas, but I make rough thumbnail sketches to figure out the general scale and composition of the final painting. Usually, I start a piece with a wash — I like to paint wet on wet because it keeps things fluid.

AK:  Do you keep your preliminary drawings and materials? Have you ever shown them?

DS:  I keep all my old drawings and sketches as a record of what I was thinking about at the time. I've exhibited drawings, though making finished drawings doesn't always feel natural. For me, drawing is so attached to my process. Sometimes, I'll also find my old lists of ideas for paintings and think, "Why didn't I ever paint that?" or, "Thank God I never painted that!"

AK:  Do you favor any particular palette or aesthetic?

DS:  My palette changes depending on what I want to express. I don't necessarily favor any particular style of painting; I just seek out what I'm in the mood for or what I feel the specific work needs. I do love certain painters and paintings, especially post-WWI work from Germany — I thought the Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s show at the Met was incredible.

AK:  Can you talk about your approach to visual representation?

DS:  I often work from hypotheticals, creating systems that propose pragmatic solutions to impossible situations and imagining impossible subjects. You have to imagine a subject in order to know how to depict it, and I often choose subjects that are difficult for me to imagine. Take, for example, a picture of a person eating his own face in Face Eater. It's hard for me to imagine the mechanics of that subject. Recently, I've been using phrases as a framework to try to imagine a painting.

AK:  How much freedom is there in being a painter, especially with the burden of the medium's long history?

DS:  I think there's enormous freedom. Personally, I'm more interested in individual paintings and particular moments within a painting than the entire history, so I don't feel burdened at all. Painting is a really strange and sometimes funny activity. You spend so many hours alone, standing in front of a canvas and trying to depict something that doesn't yet exist but will, for better or for worse, when you're done. It can be embarrassing, romantic, harrowing, and totally absurd.

AK:  How do you handle false starts?

DS:  It depends; sometimes, I'll work through it, and sometimes, it's better to just start fresh. I have a hard time throwing things out, but usually I'll take the painting off the stretcher bars and just start over.

AK:  Is your studio messy or neat? Do you work from chaos to order or order to chaos?

DS:  Maybe chaos to chaos instead? But really, my paintings end up being pretty ordered, despite my studio being a dump. I don't mind the mess unless it's physically blocking me. The only thing that I try to stay on top of is having clean brushes — that's really important.

AK:  Do you use the Internet to source subjects, or any design software?

DS:  I don't use my computer for design, but I do sometimes Google textures and patterns. My printer ran out of ink recently, and the colors became all whacked out, so I've actually been stealing some palettes from that malfunction.

AK:  How much time do you spend in the studio versus going out to art shows and openings?

DS:  I spend a lot of time in the studio — it's where I feel happiest — but it's good to go out. I don't go to that many openings, unless it's a friend's show. They can be really overwhelming, and it's usually impossible to actually see anything. I also have a lot of friends who have studios in the same building as me, so it's easy to socialize without going too far.

AK:  How does being a painter in New York differ from being a painter in Cleveland, where you studied art as an undergraduate?

DS:  I loved being in Cleveland. Conversations about art were so intense there; there weren't many art shows coming through, so everything I saw was in magazines, where the argument surrounding an artist's work was already clearly framed and articulated by the time it reached you. In New York, you see things as they happen, so those arguments are much fuzzier. I just remember blowing everything out of proportion in Cleveland, but maybe that's just a symptom of being an undergrad and learning everything for the first time. Cleveland is grungier. People smoke in restaurants — they'll eat omelets and smoke at the same time, which is disgusting, but for some reason, I miss it. Studio space is also incredibly cheap in Cleveland, but the art scene doesn't have the same energy as New York.

AK:  Do you prepare differently for a show in Europe — for example, at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris or Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin, where you have a current show — than when you debut work for a New York audience?

DS:  In Europe, I have a harder time figuring out how my work will translate. I don't consciously change what I make or how I present outside the country, but I wonder, for instance, if different countries have different clichés.

AK:  Why did you decide to investigate the age-old form of still lifes in your new show, If It Appears in the Desert, at CFA?

DS:  I actually wasn't interested in still lifes as historical forms, but as gatherings of objects in a space or a no-place. When I started these paintings, I Googled "I'm into," and all these phrases returned: "I'm into small houses," "I'm into minimalist tattoos," "I'm into Ben Franklin," "I'm into navy blue," "I'm into radical transparency," "I'm into fruit salad," etc. Some words triggered more ideas for paintings than others. I like the phrase "I'm into" — it's so casual, but somehow weirdly specific, and I wanted the paintings to point to a body that was absent.

AK:  Were there any particular artists you were thinking about when making this body of work?

DS:  I was looking at a lot of René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, and Georges Braque. I was interested in the patterns and atmosphere in these painters' work. I have been looking at a lot of surrealism lately, but I want my subjects to feel actual, like sculpture or objects on display.

AK:  You use a number of visual and verbal puns in your paintings and their titles. How important is that sly wit to your work?

DS:  Wit is important to some of my paintings, but it's not something that I consciously plot. The best paintings are the ones that surprise you — the ones where halfway through, unexpected things start happening and multiple meanings coalesce.

Dana Schutz's solo show If It Appears in the Desert is on view at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin through April 26.

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