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Why Dana Schutz Painted Emitt Till

Dana Schutz’s studio, in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, may not be as catastrophically messy as Francis Bacon’s used to be, but there are days when it comes close. Last July, she was making paintings for a solo show, in the fall, at Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin, and for the 2017 Whitney Biennial, in New York. Large and medium-sized canvases in varying stages of completion covered most of the wall space in the studio, a long, windowless room that was once an auto-body shop, and the floor was a palimpsest of rags, used paper palettes, brushes, metal tubs filled with defunct tubes of Old Holland oil paint, colored pencils and broken charcoal sticks, cans of solvent, spavined art books, pages torn from magazines, bundled work clothes stiff with paint, paper towels, a prelapsarian boom box, empty Roach Motel cartons, and other debris.

Schutz’s paintings, in which abstract and figurative images combine to tell enigmatic stories, sometimes carry veiled references to what’s going on in the world. “Men’s Retreat,” made in 2005, shows blindfolded members of George W. Bush’s Cabinet pursuing strange outdoor rites; “Poisoned Man,” painted the same year, is an imagined portrait of the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who barely survived an assassination attempt, in 2004. Schutz, thirty-nine at the time, with untamable hair and a radiant smile, said that she had been up until very late the night before, watching the Republican National Convention on television. “I remember the second Bush nomination in 2003 and feeling so angry, but this was depressing,” she said. “It was like a disaster you can’t look away from.” When I asked if the rise of Donald Trump might invade her new work, she thought for a moment, and said, “I want to make a painting about shame. Public shaming has become an element in contemporary life. You can take a picture of someone and post it online, and thousands of people see it. We’re so ashamed, about so many things, and I think for a candidate to be without shame, like Trump, is really powerful. His lack of shame becomes our shame.”...

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