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Dana Schutz Is Seriously Funny. Tracey Emin Is Seriously Honest

At the risk of evoking unpleasant memories of high-school English, can we please discuss the word allegory? It refers to a story or a painting that comes with a moral or a lesson, perhaps a social or political one. And, in an era when figurative art has returned to prominence, the New York galleries are filled with a profusion of both allegorical paintings and their very opposite — which is to say, paintings that reject third-person narration in favor of first-person self-exposure. I caught two shows last week — Dana Schutz’s and Tracey Emin’s — that represent the two extremes.

Schutz, who’s now 47, is our leading painter of oil-on-canvas allegories. Her current show, “Jupiter’s Lottery,” — her first at the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea — is a substantial and exciting affair that brings together 15 large-scale, exuberantly colored paintings and seven related bronze sculptures that come with a cast of sad-funny characters adrift in a fallen, post-Edenic world.

None of the works, by the way, resemble “Open Casket,” the photograph-based painting of Emmett Till that jettisoned Schutz into bilious controversy in 2017. When the painting was unveiled at the Whitney Biennial, detractors demanded that it be removed and even destroyed, and accused the artist, who is white, of exploiting an image of Black anguish for profit and self-aggrandizement.

For this viewer, it was unsettling to see a painting discredited for any reason other than aesthetic ones. In the end, the issue was Biennial-specific and unrelated to Schutz’s other work, which is not tethered to tragic historical images. Rather, Schutz is a painter of life’s nutty and often humorous pageant. You can see her as a brilliant heir of Philip Guston (1913-1980), the ex-Abstract Expressionist who inaugurated the resurgence of figurative painting in the ’70s. Schutz’s new show openly recycles images culled from Guston’s angst-laden lexicon, such as heads with bulging eyeballs or pink hands resembling oversize rubber gloves.

But unlike Guston, Schutz veils her paintings in twisty fables that can take time to visually unravel. “Talking Twin,” one of the standouts in her new show, is an arresting vertical painting in which two sisters sit side by side in a well-appointed living room, lemony sunlight flickering in tree branches outside the window. The high-key color extends to the floor of the room, where little bursts of fiery orange flare between the sisters’ bare feet. Nothing seems especially awry until you notice that the sister on the right has a jumbo-size pink tongue draped across her lap. You might say she is literally “holding her tongue.” The picture, perhaps, is intended as an allegory for the biblical belief that equates silence with virtue and gabbing with sin. Pity the talky sister!

Schutz is at her best — her most emotionally direct — in a series of paintings that feel semi-autobiographical and focus on the vicissitudes of the artistic life. “Dear Painter” is a riveting horizontal canvas in which a female artist with a gigantic cranium — she’s all brain — and a tiny body sits upright in a four-post bed, a field of green blazing behind her. She appears unfazed as two male attendants compete for her attention. One has stolen her paintbrush and is daubing red pigment on her face. The other man, who bears a distinct resemblance to David Zwirner, contorts his body to place a crystal slipper on the artist’s foot. Which one will she choose? I think we know.

I also loved “The Hill,” in which a group of artists gather in the muddy outdoors, to paint en plein-air. Around them, the sky is suffused with an orange-red haze that looks one shade away from turning toxic. Although the artists are working from the same model, the images displayed on their canvases (a red tulip, a small fire, a bluish view of alpine peaks) are comically random. In the upper left, a boxy canvas is shown from the back, its wooden stretcher bars conveniently doubling as a Christian cross and suggesting a vision of contemporary art as a hapless and bumbling crusade.

Schutz is seriously funny. She can also be emotionally tender. In the lower right of “The Hill,” beneath an apparition of George Washington, a female duck confidently strides into the scene, toting a few canvases. Her plaid coat — a grid of bravura orange and blue strokes — amounts to a lush mini-abstraction. A gold medallion on her chest says “JP,” puzzlingly so. Whose initials are they? To find out, I used one of my three lifelines and asked the artist. JP, it turns out, is Joyce Pensato, a dear friend of Schutz’s who died in 2019, and was known for stark, smudgy paintings of Donald Duck and other demonic characters.

All in all, Schutz is a brilliant picture constructor. She packs her canvases with endless anecdote without sacrificing their all-at-once power. This is not to say that her paintings all have the same enviable unity. “The Gathering,” the show’s centerpiece, is an enormous horizontal painting — 21 feet long —— that squeezes more than a dozen figures into a space clotted with visual anecdote. You don’t know what to look at first. One possibility is your phone: It helps to Google Gustave Courbet’s masterpiece, “The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up Seven Years of My Life as an Artist” (1854-5), the presumed inspiration for Schutz’s “Gathering.”

Courbet, the radical founder of 19th century Realism, aspired to replace the heavy allegories of the past with the immediacy of his own life. Schutz attempts something similar in “The Gathering,” which can be read as an allegory of the art world. In the place of the handsome and bearded Courbet, “The Gathering” is dominated by a female nude whose body seems mangled beyond repair. Displayed behind a red velvet rope, on a wheeled cart that is stuck in mud, the woman is a captive — not least of her audience’s perceptions of her. The people around her cannot stop staring. They take notes, edit film, ogle her from a director’s chair. Shiny coins and crumpled bills litter the ground, testifying to her worldly success. The poet Robert Browning once wrote that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Nice sentiment, but when the man is a woman her reach for excellence can leave her stretched to death.

The seven large-scale sculptures in the show, by the way, also abound with narrative incident, but lack the cleareyed vigor of the paintings. Built in clay and cast in bronze, most of them are coated in a dark gray patina that makes it hard to see their individual parts. Perhaps they would benefit from color.


Tracey Emin, the British artist and brand name, seems like the opposite of Dana Schutz. While Schutz dreams up elaborate stories and what-if fairy tales, Emin dispenses with anecdote, detail and anything else that might interfere with her vision of art as a frank recounting of her own experiences on the outer shores of love and loss.

Emin, who’s 60, is now showing a group of recent paintings at White Cube, on Madison Avenue, a just-opened outpost of the London gallery that helped introduce the Young British Artists in the ’90s. “Lovers Grave,” as the show is titled, is all at once, uneven, repetitive, and stirring. It brings together a group of 26 figurative paintings, most of them large-scale canvases in which wobbly outlines in black and red meander against snow-white fields and return compulsively to the theme of the artist sprawled out in bed, sometimes alone, sometimes in the throes of lovemaking with a male partner.

Emin can fairly be called our bard of beds. She first earned fame in 1999, when her history-making installation — “My Bed” — was shortlisted for Britain’s Turner Prize and exhibited at the Tate. It was not a depiction of a bed, but the actual McCoy, a mattress that came with disheveled sheets and an accompanying cargo of empty bottles, condoms, stuffed ashtrays, and other detritus that turned the tradition of the coolly ironic Duchampian found object into a vehicle for heated female confession.

In recent years, Emin has forsaken the found object for painting. But her primary subject remains the same — her bed and her more or less complete departure from the mechanics of representation. She does not bother with preparatory sketches, work from a model, or depict any women besides herself. She begins each canvas by making a mark and then going freestyle. At their best, her paintings remind us that a blank canvas is fundamentally bed-like: an enclosed rectangle, white, flat, inviting drama and acts of conception but often inspiring only a snooze.

Emin’s nudes on rumpled bedsheets belong to a lofty tradition in British art. But she rejects the fastidious realism of predecessors like Lucian Freud in favor of an improvisational approach that owes something to the gestural style of Abstract Expressionism. Her weaker paintings can seem incomplete. She tends to ignore the four edges of her canvas, leaving her nudes as unanchored as a graphic logo on a T-shirt. In paintings like “And It was Love” or “Yes I Miss You,” rivulets of blood-red pigment drip down randomly across empty deserts of canvas. Even Jackson Pollock knew that his drips needed to be imbued with a sense of pictorial structure.

Still, there is no denying the emotional directness of Emin’s work, and it is easy to admire a painting such as “I Went Home,” in which a nude figure outlined in dusty rose (so much more interesting than bloody red) lies on her back in bed amid a setting that suggests the rooftops of her native Margate silhouetted against a gray sky. I also liked the paintings that referred glancingly to her Persian rug and chest of drawers — something is gained when Emin sets her nudes in a believable world.

Emin deserves high praise for her fearless mining of her own experiences, but one wishes she acknowledged that thinking about the mechanics of one’s craft is a worthy experience too.

Dana Schutz: Jupiter’s Lottery Through Dec. 16, David Zwirner, 525 and 533 West 19th Street, Chelsea,

Tracey Emin: Lovers GraveThrough Jan. 13, White Cube, 1002 Madison Ave., (212) 750-4232; Upper East Side,

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