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Hot tones, cool eye

Dana Schutz's paintings weave sociopolitical and cultural images together into a unique vision

'CHIDKEN AND EGG' | In a riff on perception and the power of projection, Frank, a character in many of Dana Schutz's works, plays with a contraption that might be a telescope or a planetarium projector.
'CHIDKEN AND EGG' | In a riff on perception and the power of projection, Frank, a character in many of Dana Schutz's works, plays with a contraption that might be a telescope or a planetarium projector.

WALTHAM -- Frank, the sunburned, zoned-out, amiable slacker who takes center stage in some of Dana Schutz's paintings, is her vision of the last man on earth. Schutz, in that scenario, would be the last painter on earth. That she even imagines herself in Frank's narrative is telling. If you were the last painter on earth, what would you paint? Would you paint at all? Would you question the very point of painting?

Schutz, a 29-year-old whose work in the last couple of years has besotted the art world, casts a gimlet eye on her own efforts, even as she immerses herself in the meaning of art and the history of painting. All this is evident in her sharp, startling show at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis, her first solo museum outing.

But if you think that adds up to a theory-heavy snoozer of an exhibition, think again. Schutz applies the same outwardly laconic yet deeply engaged imagination to body image, cloning, social politics, music, and the nature of civilization that she does to the meaning of art. No wonder she is this moment's darling of curators, critics, and collectors. Her paintings weave together threads of the zeitgeist into an original and canny vision of who we are now.

Although Schutz's canvases are hot-toned and painted with brawny, expressionistic, almost sculptural strokes and filled with sometimes outrageous, push-button scenes, a chilly sense of dissociation marks them -- as if she's 10, and her subjects are dolls she's outgrowing but still plays with. Look at ''Surgery." In it, a woman, eyes wide, lies on a table with limbs splayed. A group surrounds her, picking at her with forceps or scissors; one reaches into her skull and probes at her brain. They take a clinical interest in what's going on, but nobody shows concern that the patient is on the verge of disappearing as they pick away at her flesh.

The artist has made a series of paintings titled ''Self-Eaters." In ''Self-Eater 3," a dark-haired figure gnaws hungrily on his or her own limb. Sound gruesome? Not to Schutz, who says in an interview with curator Raphaela Platow, published in the excellent exhibition catalog, that the self-eaters are ''self-recycling, autonomous, and self-sufficient." They eat, then rebuild themselves from their own digestive material. ''They have no original and are always in a state of becoming," says Schutz. In essence, they're a metaphor for art, which constantly recycles, digests, and re-forms ideas. As a painter, she's the self-eaters' god and their witness, and she is one of them.

Yet the echoes of contemporary life are unnerving. One of her paintings, not in this show, portrays the body of Michael Jackson -- the fallen patron saint of personal reinvention -- on an autopsy table. The detached destruction and re-creation that the self-eaters go through mirror the way many people today view their own flesh as clay to be sculpted. Feminists decry the objectification of women; art theorists talk about how the artist's gaze objectifies his subject. Schutz coolly posits the objectification of the self, raising delicious questions about identity.

It's wonderful to see many of Schutz's paintings together; the recycling process shows in her art making. Frank appears in many works, including the gorgeous ''Chicken and Egg," in which he plays with a contraption that might be a telescope, or a projector at a planetarium. Behind him, a moon, looking like an egg fried sunny side up, hovers in a star-strewn sky; the sparkling reflection of the sky puddles below. It's a riff on perception and the power of projection.

The artist says she recycled Frank to make ''The Breeders," a portrait in which two of the rock band's members pop out of pink, fleshy shells -- presumably the shards of Frank. Musicians such as the Breeders and P.J. Harvey show up as shamans of creation and self-creation. In ''50 Foot Queenie," Harvey appears to have melded with her instruments; a keyboard and its stand form her skirt and spindly legs.

Schutz dives lustily into social politics, to great comic effect, but even these pictures circle back to Frank and the last-man-on-earth story, pitting man ''Survivor"-style against nature. ''Men's Retreat" has tie-clad CEO types blindfolded in the woods, playing trust games and painting war paint on one another's faces. It's a withering commentary on the manhood of the powerful.

One of the largest pieces in the show, ''Civil Planning," centers on two young women building small piles of rocks. One talks, the other focuses on the job at hand. They appear oblivious to the scene around them, which includes a jungle of foliage, drawing tables, and arms and legs being consumed and utilized as tools. In the pale distance, naked people drag one another around.

Platow aptly compares this painting to Gauguin's ''Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" -- an inquiry into the role of society and a manifestation of anxiety in the midst of change. In the far distance in Schutz's painting, a little artist stands before a canvas, observing and recording it all. Perhaps as long as this artist has a paintbrush and pigment, she will feel safe. But what she paints, although she describes it in harmless terms, has an edge of violence to it. Transformation often does.

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Dana Schutz's work
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