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I am a New York-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Take A Denver Art Museum Tour with Artist Dana Schutz

One of the exhibition halls for Dana Schutz’s If the Face Had Wheels

The Denver Art Museum is not only home to Becoming Van Gogh, but also If the Face Had Wheels – a special exhibition of ten years of artist Dana Schutz’s work. Who? I didn’t know her name either, not until the museum invited me to preview the exhibition of a ten-year survey of her work. And after walking through the exhibition, listening to her explain some of her pieces, I now have a better appreciation of who she is and what she has done. That opportunity isn’t exclusive to special previews, though. Anyone with a smartphone can take a tour with Schutz. A Schutz audio guide is available for free download in iTunes or your Marketplaces, offering you virtually the same experience I enjoyed.

If the Face Had Wheels virtual tour information

It isn’t unusual for me not to know an artist’s name; outside of my favorites – Picasso, Rothko, Pollock, and so forth – I don’t tend to retain too many names. I love art, so I appreciated the exciting and interesting work Schutz had on display, but I tend to put more weight in specific pieces opposed to the artist’s name. I think it’s a good thing, too, and that it’s best to judge each creation on its own, not simply declare it as magnificent based on the artist’s name; Van Gogh, one floor above, would get a sweeping mark of approval, when in truth I didn’t like every single piece of his I saw on display.

I knew little of what to expect in relation to Schutz when I walked into the Denver Art Museum. I had Googled her, looked at some of her work and read a short online bio, but wasn’t sure whether or not I’d like the Michigan-born contemporary artist’s work. Some of the pieces I saw on the internet I instantly liked. Others I wasn’t too sure about, so I wanted to hear more about her thought process when creating it; Schutz guided a group of us through If the Face Had Wheels, explaining her work from different periods of her career – like Tourettes and Verbs – and highlighting different pieces in the process.

Sneeze, 2001

The first work we stopped at, which is just inside the exhibition hall’s doors, is called Sneeze. At first I was quite disgusted by it. The amount of, well, snot, was astounding. But I fell into a different world in my head as I listened to Schutz explain how she tried to capture the action in one frozen moment. “I was thinking of things that couldn’t be observed, like a sneeze. You can’t even keep your eyes open when you sneeze. I thought about making a painting about what it felt like to sneeze, more than what it looked like to sneeze.” And as I listened to her, and thought about this explanation, I began to discover and appreciate the momentary motion captured on a canvas.

The Autopsy of Michael Jackson, 2005

The same could not be said for all of her work, though. Some – like The Autopsy of Michael Jackson, a piece done in 2005 before his death – no matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t like. It made me squeamish and uncomfortable. But, on another hand, that is also a good thing. Art is not simply meant to be beautiful portraits or wheat fields, but also should elicit emotion. And Schutz, in such works, is very successful at grabbing and pulling them out of you.

Devourer and Face Eater, 2004

Other of Schutz’s pieces didn’t create such negative emotions. The Devourer and Face Eater both made me appreciate inventive imagination, what it would look like if you ate your hand or tried to eat your face. Instead of being self-cannibalistic or disgusting, I simply took them as curious and abstract thoughts. The same is true for Civil Planning, which Dana Schutz explained to us: “In the woods you feel like it’s a space of play where things can be rebuilt or made. … [The woods] are a space where you can have a kind of continuum of abstraction and representation.”

Dana Schutz explains Civil Planning, 2004

It wasn’t until the Verbs part of the exhibition where I truly began to appreciate the inventiveness of her work. Does that mean it was all fantastic? No. Far from it. Some of the pieces, as I already said, I really didn’t like. But they at least created an emotion within me. Swimming, Smoking, Crying made me chuckle, because of the irony. “It’s about interior space. And I wanted it to feel atmospheric. I wanted the head to feel like an island, and everything going on is like the underside of a boat – everything going on under water – with the hand feeling like an ineffective flipper, which is not very good for swimming,” explained Schutz. And sometimes, as I listened to her explain the piece, I had to admit that that is exactly how life can feel – like you’re on an island and everything about you is ineffectual. So staring at it, I laughed.

Swimming, Smoking, Crying, 2009

I’m Into Shooting In Natural Environments, 2008

Dana Schutz wrapped up the tour in the last room of the exhibition hall. There she talked about a work she created, I’m Into Shooting In Natural Environments, by simply Googling the phrase, “I’m Into.” And then, from there, she began to create the piece based on what came up for things people were interested in. The cleverness and absurdity of it all also made me laugh – PBS, shooting, and more all mixed together in one painting. If there was a deeper intended meaning, though, I didn’t hear it. I was already distracted with a nearby piece, which then caused me to wander off and go back and look at other pieces which I found fascinating.

Gouged Girl, 2008

Men’s Retreat, 2005

Her Arms, 2003

The artwork by Dana Schutz in her ten-year survey in If the Face Had Wheels is inventive and interesting. Can it be compared to the ten-year survey a floor above on Vincent Van Gogh? Absolutely not; I don’t think that’s fair for either artist. But what Schutz has on display is worth a look, particularly since she acts as your virtual guide throughout the exhibition. And that, on its own, is a special opportunity I have yet to find in museums elsewhere.

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