Near the entrance of the Miami Art Museum, a self-portrait depicts artist Dana Schutz wide-eyed and gazing heavenward. Traffic-cone-colored locks frame her gray, wrinkled face. Her nose, rendered in slashing brush strokes, looks like an elephant's trunk. It juts out from the canvas in a bubbled welt.
Across the way is a picture of a young woman sneezing in a scrunched-eyed convulsion, an explosion of mucous spraying from her schnoz. The blonde's piggish peepers are rendered with daubs of oil paint squeezed straight from the tube, magnifying the notion that she might have a contagious disease.
The two paintings show Schutz's wicked streak of humor and gift for corrosive storytelling. They are part of a remarkable suite of more than 40 paintings and drawings in "Dana Schutz: If the Face Had Wheels," a survey of the Brooklyn-based artist's work from 2001 to 2011.
"Dana Schutz: If the Face Had Wheels": Through February 26 at Miami Art Museum, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami; 305-375-3000; miamiartmuseum.org. Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.
The sprawling show was highly trumpeted by national art critics when it opened in New York last year and garnered the cover of November's Art in America. Indeed, the 35-year-old artist has been awash in a cascade of accolades for wildly inventive images that bore into the skull.
Included are paintings from Schutz's early Frank From Observation series, in which she portrays the fictional account of "Frank," the last man on Earth, who poses for the planet's only surviving painter. It was created shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In another series, begun after the Iraq War escalated in 2003 and 2004, a race of what appear to be mutant cannibals devours its own flesh in an orgy of narcissistic self-consumption. But the self-sufficient grotesques regenerate themselves from their own waste.
At once ambivalent and absurd, these works describe a world slipping off its axis in dangerous and uncertain times. "With the paintings of Frank and the Self Eaters, I was looking for generative situations in which the subject can be put into play," Schutz explains. "With the Last Man on Earth From Observation paintings, I was not interested in end-of-the-world situations... In fact, it became very complicated for me to begin the paintings of Frank in 2001."
She says she was preparing to start the series in her New York studio right before the World Trade Center was attacked. Afterward, Schutz felt hesitant about creating paintings of civilization's last surviving man.
"I had to make a few other paintings before I could begin the paintings of Frank," she says. "With these paintings, I was interested in how representation would function in a situation with potentially no audience. A lot of my work in the past has involved a subject, a maker, and a hypothetical viewer."
Although she began her Self Eaters paintings while the Bush administration had ramped up the fighting in Iraq, Schutz notes she would never describe the haunting images of disfigured characters that bring to mind battlefield casualties as a scathing commentary on America's growing commitment to war.
"I would never say that these paintings are a critique of the state of things, but the painting Civil Planning was partially inspired by the events that were going on at that time. And the painting Party has references to Abu Ghraib with the hood-like shapes," Schutz observes.
She mentions she was reflecting on notions of American individualism, the possibility of group action, and an inability to separate work and production from an idea of self. "These figures were literally 'self-made' and a mess. But they also were makers too, and in that way, they could be potential artists," she says.
A canvas that also makes an arresting impression is the monumental Men's Retreat (2005), in which a conga line of middle-aged white men, dressed in business suits, some blindfolded, others banging drums, parade through a jungle.
At first blush, the scene brings to mind a group of corporate swells or weary political types during an innocent jaunt. But a closer inspection reveals that one of the pasty-faced WASPs bears an uncanny resemblance to Dick Cheney and another to John Sununu, George H.W. Bush's White House chief of staff. Behind them, under a dense canopy of leaves offering seclusion, several naked men engage in a game of leapfrog, bringing to mind Jerry Sandusky's savagery at Penn State.
"It's important for me that the painting stay open. When I initially made this painting, it felt very much to be about these corporate retreats where powerful people would go to share information and possibly blackmail each other or bond," Schutz recollects. "Now the painting seems like these men are lost in the woods or enduring a kind of punishment that the public would wish upon them."
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The painting that best reflects the Zeitgeist is The Autopsy of Michael Jackson, which actually presaged the pop icon's death by several years. The garage-door-size canvas shows the singer splayed on his back on a metal morgue slab. His nude body is mottled by the asparagus-green hues of rigor mortis and sutured like a baseball. On a shelf over his decomposing foot, affixed with a toe tag, his trademark silver glove and red military shirt lie neatly folded.
Jackson's blotchy penis is rendered in loose, gestural strokes. It recalls the singer's child abuse trials, the testimony he suffered from vitiligo, and his lifelong obsession with altering his appearance.
"I think there is always an attraction to celebrity personality. But the situation with Michael Jackson was so extreme. He practically grew up onstage and had such a hand in the construction of his own physical image," Schutz says. "I think we all do this now to some extent — we constantly construct and reconstruct our own image.
"Awhile ago I saw two girls at a bar photographing everything: their drinks, the bartender, each other, the seats, the candles on the bar. I assumed they were basically making a record of their night to post on Facebook. It's gotten so that the last private space we have is the inside of our head."