Blister in the Sun

Dana Schutz: Piano in the Rain
Friedrich Petzel Gallery
Through June 16, 2012

The sitcom, or situation comedy, is a television show format that usually features a family scenario (for example, a husband and wife, like in The Honeymooners), or a larger, extended family (The Cosby Show), or some kind of surrogate family (Barney Miller, Cheers). In this weekly formula a mini-crisis or drama ensues, threatening to unravel the delicate fabric of the familial tranquility. Historically, theatrical comedies have often dealt with the concerns of human activities and conditions in ways that drama can't, cloaking tragedy with humor. Shakespeare, for example, often used his comedies to deal with subject matter that might have been problematic to present as drama; the entirety of Restoration theatre was based on the use of satire as a form of social and political critique.

Dana Schutz appropriates the familiar forms and styles of Munch, Ensor, and Guston, taking in equal measures their darkly humorous figuration, theatrical settings, and often simple narrative structure. Into these motifs, which resemble the sitcom setting and storyline, Schutz weaves tales featuring a lead protagonist (such as Guston's Nixon), and she incorporates herself into the act as the narrator of the stories (Baselitz often did something similar in his works of the early 1960s). In her first one-person show in 2002, Schutz used a character called Frank, “the last man on earth,” an aging hippy, straight out of casting; Frank even resembled the comedian Chris Elliot.

In this exhibition of new paintings, Schutz's characters seek to overcome what might at first seem impossible, dysfunctional, or potentially hilarious situations. The show's title, Piano in the Rain, suggests that these obstacles, though offering the potential for slapstick, hint at a darker, romantic allegory shrouded in humor. In "Hop" (2012), a man wearing a woolly Cliff Huxtable turtleneck sweater and brown corduroys is confronted by a large angry bunny. Shooting "Heroin in the Wind" (2012), like playing the piano in the rain, is, at best, a dicey proposition.

In "Small Apartment" (2012) [above], Schutz lowers the level of Chaplinesque funniness, instead creating a scene that is more Sleepless in Seattle: a couple sits across from each other over a wadded-tissue-strewn table in a breakfast nook. Although they hold hands, they seem disconnected; the male protagonist looks toward us, while the female lead stares blankly at the table. Like all of Schutz's work, the drama is secondary to the act of painting, and "Small Apartment" employs an array of techniques. Her slashes and squiggles, applied with brush, scraper, oil stick, and squeegee, ultimately upstage the action. Small Apartment might bring to mind Matisse's Conversation (1908–12) in which he depicted his wife Amélie in a black and green housecoat, and himself in his signature striped pajamas, facing each other across a balcony in which the word "non" was written in scrolled letters. "Small Apartment" suggests that, although Schutz explores the possibilities of a humorous approach to painting, she is still very much aware of its power to convey genuine emotional depth. - Bradley Rubenstein

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Friedrich Petzel Gallery is at 535–537 West 22nd Street in New York, New York.

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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