Hepworth Wakefield, Gallery Walk, Wakefield, West Yorkshire WF1 5AW

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Dana Schutz
Hepworth Wakefield
12 October 2013 - 26 January 2014
Review by Maggie Gray

Their colours may well strike first - lurid hues quarrelling on the canvas - but Dana Schutz’s paintings at Hepworth Wakefield are also remarkable for their textures. They are, for one thing, decidedly painterly; thick with scrambled touches and seemingly arbitrary flourishes, skeins of paint pulled over still-wet grounds. But texture also bristles through her work as a recurring motif, and as a narrative of sorts, convincingly evoked in the appearance, actions and expressions of her perennially uncomfortable figures.

Taken literally, ‘Licking a Brick’ is a raspingly unappetising idea, as the character doing just that in Schutz’s painting from 2011 seems to confirm. The scene is so absurdly amusing that it’s easy to overlook the effectiveness of Schutz’s technique. The terracotta colours, overlapping details and marked changes in her handling of the paint (prodding and fleshy on the tongue, dry and dragging elsewhere) successfully suggest the various inimical surfaces. Other works achieve a similar directness. ‘Shaving’ is a searing, unexpected image of a woman trying to ‘get ready for the beach’, as Schutz puts it. A livid patch of raw shaved skin on her crotch forms the aggressive focal point, but the sun, scarlet sand and scratchy straw hat all help to stoke that sense of hot, dry, prickly abrasion.

This facility for evoking texture is crucial to the artist’s wider preoccupations. She’s well-known now as a painter of either nail-bitingly awkward everyday scenes (which predominate in this exhibition), or fantastical scenarios that are even more physically discomfiting - most memorably a series of ‘self-eaters’ who distractedly devour parts of their own bodies. At both extremes her work directly tackles what it is to inhabit a body without really knowing what to do with it, or how to care for it.

Her most effective works communicate that feeling with a sort of slapstick immediacy, felt rather than told. It’s not clear how the figure ‘Getting dressed all at once’ has found herself in such a tangle, but it’s easy to appreciate her dull-eyed exasperation, her testy contortions, and the synthetic drag of the clothes. Schutz’s mute figures inspire empathy in the way a mime artist or silent comedian might: through a series of disarmingly vulnerable moments, self-consciously, farcically over-performed. Her largest and most ambitious painting in the show (‘Assembling an Octopus’) draws together a whole collection of such scenes in a wall-sized montage, a compendium of awkwardness. The figures seem cramped, bunched together in their setting - which is hardly unusual for Schutz’s work - but it’s tempting to read an overarching story into the motley crew, and I wonder whether they are somehow individually diminished in the attempt.

Schutz’s work is humorous, but like all good humour it has a dark side, most unsettlingly embodied here in the painting of a young boy in a woollen cardigan, idly pulling the legs off a butterfly whose wings bear exactly the sort of patterns the child might have painted himself in a less destructive moment. For all its violence, it doesn’t seem like a malicious act, and perhaps among this gallery of oddballs he represents the more macabre allure of Schutz’s work: that fascination, without particular ill-will, with what might happen when things are pulled apart and muddled up a bit.

This is Schutz’s first solo exhibition in the UK, so perhaps it was a deliberate decision to focus on social awkwardness and everyday eccentricity. Her large, popping canvases capture the disproportionate horror of briefly embarrassing moments. By focusing all that painterly attention - and all that wall space - on situations the majority of us might try instantly to deny or forget, she champions a surprisingly misfit emotion in the art historical canon. We readily praise art that conjures up expressions of love, awe or happiness, even longing, fear and pain. Why not give a bit of time to embarrassment’ Hardly a noble emotion, but a very human one, and certainly keenly felt.

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