Visual Language Artist

Blog: Observable

Observable: adj - Able to be noticed or perceived; discernible.


Nicholas Hullibarger, June 23, 2017

Figure 1:  Head of Timothy Leary , 2005, Lithograph, Edition VIII/XXV

Figure 1: Head of Timothy Leary, 2005, Lithograph, Edition VIII/XXV

    Pictured above (Figure 1) is Timothy Leary. Well, it's a painting of Timothy Leary’s head - dismembered and placed in what seems to be a jar. Who is Mr. Leary?

He was an American psychologist and writer known for advocating the exploration of the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs - under controlled conditions. His primary expertise being LSD. Surprisingly enough before his LSD extravaganza, Mr. Leary was a Harvard Professor until May of 1963 to which he was swiftly fired for giving students psilocybin - a hallucinatory drug.

Now, we've covered who our headless man is - other thought experiments might look like this: who is the painter and why did they paint this subject matter? Or better yet, is this work congruent with other works they had produced over the past 15 years? 

    Now, many of us may not be offended or even bat an eyelash at a painting about an old deranged white man that supported controlled drug use. But what about other taboo subjects? Like women shaving their bikini line in public? Or some not so taboo subjects like murder? 

Figure B:  Dana   Schutz, Open Casket (2016). Oil on canvas.   Collection   of the artist; courtesy Petzel, New York.

Figure B: Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016). Oil on canvas. Collection of the artist; courtesy Petzel, New York.

Which bring us to March of 2017: 

Painter, Dana Shutz work “Open Casket, 2017” (Figure B) was accepted into The Whitney Biennial.

Why was this painting amplified to trend status


Till's Story

The painting In Figure B is based on a photograph of Emmett Louis Till (July 25, 1941 – August 28, 1955). Emmett was only 14 when he was brutally murdered by a Mississippi mob in 1955. After the tragedy, Tills mother Mamie insisted that her sons funeral be an open casket. This act sent shock waves around the United States and later became a profound visual aspect of the civil rights movement.

"The open-coffin funeral held by Mamie Till bravely exposed the world to more than her son's bloated, mutilated body. Her decision focused attention not only on American racism and the barbarism of lynching but also on the limitations and vulnerabilities of American democracy."



February - March 2017 

                 “Social Media erupts as the Art World splits in two over Dana Schutz Controversy”  

- Brian Boucher

Sadly, being a white male that grew up in Midwestern white flight suburbia - I was not exposed to the heinous actions of the 1955 Mississippi Mob. So, I did what I normally do when I don't know something.

I researched.

Through my research, I found information that seems coincidental at best and explotative at worst.

In August of 2016, Dana Schutz created a work titled “Open Casket”. In March of 2017 Dana Schutz's painting was accepted into the Whitney Biannual. Dana's painting became a media sensation during the month of March. However, what most articles don't discuss is that in 2004 the FBI reopened the Emmit Till case and by February of 2017 Till’s accuser Carolyn Bryant, now 82, came clean about the events leading up to the murder of a 14-year-old.


Can these statements about Dana and her work (specifically) be proven?

These accusations were profound and they got me questioning the situation as a whole, the painting, and the arguments (for and against) artist intention. Naturally, I conducted a thought experiment, and I asked myself, “what would I need to do as an artist to gain the biggest buzz in the shortest amount of time?” If we look back at art historical data, we find artists like Marchel Duchamp, Piero Manzoni, Andres Serrano, Damien Hirst, etc. all created artwork that was considered by the general public as “shocking.” Not surprisingly, an entire artistic movement stemmed from this concept, called Shock Art. So, maybe Dana Schutz just wanted to be famous? Was it a cheap stunt to gain more social media followers? Or was there earnestness to her process? However, to factually back these seductive suspicions I had to find some way to check the raw data on Dana Schutz. So, I turned to Google Trends. 

Carolyn Brant [store clerk] admitted to fabricating the story and providing false testimony during the murder trial - which was the main accusation that generated a hateful racist mob that killed an innocent boy. For more information you can read the New York Times article here.

Once Dana’s painting became the focus of public outcries on racial injustice and protestors requested for censorship of the painting from The Whitney Exhibition. Acusations of profiting off black murder - with the addition of calls to burn the painting - erupted on social media. 

“Google Trends is based on Google Search that shows how often a particular search-term is entered relative to the total search volume across various regions of the world, and in multiple languages.” 

I searched “Dana Schutz” and found her web traffic in the United States dating from 2004 to present. You can see what the data looks like below.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 11.11.47 PM.png

Take note of February 2017. It is virtually Dana’s lowest set of generated traffic in 12 years. Moreover, February 2017 as we remember from earlier, also happens to be the same month Carolyn Brant confessed to false accusations against Emmitt Till. Lets see what happens.

Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 11.11.34 PM.png

By march of 2017 Dana's Painting was showing at The Whitney. As you can see she had a 98% increase in on-line media traffic. Is this all a coincidence or did Dana see an opportunity to connect the dots?

Before more allegations or interpretations of the data are made, let's examine Dana’s body of work since 2004. (Note 2002 is when she had her first solo exhibition; however, Google data is only archived to 2004. Therefore - to keep everything congruent - 2004 is as far back as we will referance Dana’s paintings.) 


A Painters History

So, my questions are -

1. what paradigm “did” Dana Schutz exist in before the release of “Open Casket”?

2. How long has Schutz been operating in the art world?

3. What are her credentials as an artist?

4. Does her resume and past works, a.k.a credentials (titles and subject matter) offer another story contrary to other articles begin published within the past few months?    

Dana Schutz's mother, was an art teacher, and father counseled High School students. Both were educated individuals living in Livonia Michigan. After High School Schutz later Pursued a BFA at the Cleveland Institute of Art and during that time studied abroad at Norwich school of art and design in England. Year later, Dana received her MFA from Columbia University.

When asked where she comes up with her subject matter, Schutz told Mel Chin of Bomb magazine in 2006: "The paintings are not autobiographical […] I respond to what I think is happening in the world. The hypotheticals in the paintings can act as surrogates or narratives for phenomena that I feel are happening in culture. In the paintings, I think in terms of adjectives and adverbs. Often I will get information from people or things that I see, a phrase, or how one object relates to another. I construct the paintings as I go along."[7]

Figure 2: Dana Schutz, God 6, 2013

Figure 2: Dana Schutz, God 6, 2013

Next, we will put Dana’s words to the test and examine her work holistically in next 600 words.


A Brief Retrospective

According to Petzel - one of the many Galleries representing Schutz’s work, they provide a 20-page resume on their site, which includes over 30 solo exhibitions and 60+ group exhibitions spanning over 20 years. 

Lets read Dana’s Reactions to the Public Outcry against her painting.

Schutz wrote [The Guardian],"I don't know what its like to be black in America, but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension.”

So why would Schutz want to spend hours upon hours of visually studying the photograph of Emmits corps? Painters with Dana's experience typically spend hours interpreting the visual data on-to the canvas by using paint. So, we have Social Media impulsively speculate on her intentions.

Did she do it for recognition or was this a natural progression in her artistic exploration? The only way to find out is to research Dana’s exhibition history and what her work was like over the past 15 years. Then identify visual consistentcys like color palette complexity, composition, form, and content that appears throughout her career.

Is it possible that the source imagery of Dana's previous work might not be immortalized to the same degree as “Open Casket.”

Linguistic clarity does exist within Dana’s titles. 

However, Let quickly examine the language used in the titles of Schutz’s previous work dating back to 2005.

Figure 3:  Dana Schutz, Bird in the Throat, 2011  

Figure 3: Dana Schutz, Bird in the Throat, 2011 

Figure 4: Dana Schutz, Crapping, Braiding and Whistling, 2009

Figure 4: Dana Schutz, Crapping, Braiding and Whistling, 2009

Figure 5: Dana Schutz, Shaving, 2010

Figure 5: Dana Schutz, Shaving, 2010

Words like shaving or craving have a direct point to them and through Schutz's  history, paintings titled“Bird in the Throat (Figure 3),” “Crapping, Braiding and Whistling" (Figure 4), “Shaving (Figure 5)” deal with physical, almost uncontrollable moments. As if the subjects have lost control of themselves to a biological force that could not be prevented. Therefore, much of Schutz's brush strokes, color pallet and paint application could be considered “FULL while simultaneously being Abrasive.”

Titles of other publications with Dana’s work convey a similar tone to “Open Casket.” Take “Teeth Dreams and Other Supposed Truths, 2005” or “The last thing you see, 2011”. These titles are fitting and yet feel like they violate you.

Works like Sneeze (Figure 6) from 2001 show quite a different side of Schutz’s paintings - while her use of color, form, and movement within her paintings remain consistent over the years. Her subject matter has never shied away from the uncomfortable, the uncanny, the grotesque.

Figure 6: Dana Schutz, Sneeze, 2001

Figure 6: Dana Schutz, Sneeze, 2001



In the end, art is about observation. Sometimes to observe something holistically -whether that be a painting, sculpture, or performance - we have to examine the contextual work that was produced before it.

With that being said, some harsh truths about the art world bubbled to the surface after “Open Casket” was displayed. And my conclusions are as follows:

Figure 7: Dana Schutz, Face Eater, 2004

Figure 7: Dana Schutz, Face Eater, 2004

  1. Yes, someone is bound to profit off of Schutz work. That's evident by her 500k price tag on most of her paintings. 
  2. Yes, the topic lingering behind "Open Casket" is frightening, sad, and infuriating. 
  3. Yes, Schutz has a creditable history of creating thought provoking and disturbing images (See Figure 7)
  4. Yes, white privilege exists and is something that should be discussed at length within the context or contemporary and historical art history.
  5. Yes, Schutz popularity skyrocketed during the tail end of March 2017, but now the data shows a significant decrease in trends just a few months later. 
  6. And yes, artists can and will continue to create works of art that challenge or confirm stereotypes.


Karen Rosenberg - October 6, 2011s

Dana Schutz: If the Face Had Wheels “Face Eater” (2004) is in this 10-year survey of the artist's work at the Neuberger Museum of Art. 

Kara L. Rooney
KARA ROONEY is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.