Dana Schutz’s Boat Group: dystopian visions and existential angst | Art and design

Emilee Geist

A weekly Guide column in which we dissect the influences and interpretations of a work of art Table of Contents Through the fire …2020 vision …Motley crew …Dark waters … Through the fire … Dana Schutz has made a ferocious bounce back from the controversy that threatened to swallow her […]

A weekly Guide column in which we dissect the influences and interpretations of a work of art

Through the fire …

Dana Schutz has made a ferocious bounce back from the controversy that threatened to swallow her career during the 2017 Whitney Biennial, where she debuted her painting Open Casket. This was based on the photograph of the dead black teenager Emmett Till, brutally murdered by two white men in 1955. At his mother’s insistence, his body was displayed to thousands and photographed. Broadcast to the world via Jet magazine, Till’s story was a significant catalyst for the civil rights movement. Schutz’s abstraction of the iconic image was, for some, a further act of violence and sparked one of the art world’s most fiery debates about off-limits subject matter.

2020 vision …

It was also an outlier in Schutz’s oeuvre: grotesque cartoonish paintings full of dark mirth and madness. Open Casket might have sounded a false note but what she has since produced – an increasingly dystopian vision in thick layers of paint and with a hat doffed to the master of existential angst, Philip Guston – feels utterly of this moment.

Motley crew …

In 2020’s Boat Group, Schutz turns the still-life cliche, a bowl of fruit, into a crazed Raft of the Medusa. In place of plums and apples we get a gang of monstrous heads, glowing with colour like luminous deep-sea creatures, and ready to topple overboard. A Punch-type puppet dangles its lifeless arm like a redundant oar, leaving them directionless in blood-black waves.

Dark waters …

Boats are a recurring motif for the artist, typically precarious isolated vessels whose passengers are no match for the opaque waters that surround them – a threat that they ignore. Here, the motley bunch might be literally all in the same boat, but their huge staring eyes never meet. Their gazes seem fixed on unknown personal obsessions.

Thomas Dane Gallery, WC1, to 19 December

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