Looking at a Work of Art: Dana Scutz "Bugs" at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Ma. Sept, 2017
One of a series of explorations in "slow" looking at a single work of art. In this case, I visited a controversial exhibit of recent works by Dana Scutz at the ICA, Boston, MA. The exhibit only had her new paintings, but nonetheless it caused some protest by people of color because of her painting of Emmet Till which was felt an inappropriate topic for a white woman....an appropriation of culture. That work was not shown in this exhibit, but did raise the ante about what and whom should get major exhibition attention. With this in mind, one applied the intense looking exercise with special care. Did the controversy affect how one looked at new work?
Choice of work for close viewing.
After all the build up from the controversy around the Emmet Till painting, my first reaction to the show was one of “underwhelmed”. I thought many of her faces were intriguing. If one read the titles there was often humor and pathos. Many works had A LOT going on, so I thought it would take a long while to fully interact with those. But Bugs was the only painting that I had an emotional reaction to. The bugs crawling on the man, particularly the one on the upper thigh, gave me a visceral, negative reaction. So I chose it in order to explore and understand this reaction.
First Emotions: what do I see
YUCK. Bugs! First thing I focus on are the bugs, particularly the one on the thigh - the BIG bug crossing the entire canvas – the ubiquitous cockroach.
Then my focus shifts to the eyes of the man: staring, wide open, expressing what? Fear? Of what? Was he wrestling with the big bug. He is an older (not really old) bearded man - sort of a Hemingwayish “old man and the sea” type. Or maybe Hercules. I am thinking that the bugs want to Eat the man.
And then the eye turns to the other face behind and above the man. The man is carrying this creature. Is it a person? A child? What is the relationship between these two isolated beings?
This is a large painting and makes a large visual impact in the middle of the exhibit. The composition is simpler than many of the other paintings in the same room. It is almost completely dominated by the big yellow area on the bottom half and big blue area in the top half.
Words: SUN HOT ARID SKY STARVATION
Finally, I focus on the horizontal shape in the center of the painting. It is very dominant and must be explained. It is almost like a CLUB, a herculean weapon.
Questions, Questions, Questions
The painting is definitely not friendly -- not viewer friendly for sure. Nor is the content “nice”. But is it entirely UNfriendly? Are there saving graces here? Is everything hostile? I don’t think so. I need to come back to these questions.
I look more and more at the eyes of this man: their quality of being at war with something. These eyes need explaining.
Then there are the protrusions on the lower left leg. What is this? In profile, they’re almost like lips. What is going on here? I feel I am really not seeing this painting yet, just jumping around and reacting.
I look at the triangles on the ground beneath the man. Their color suggests shadows. But of what? There is nothing visible that could cause these shadows. And the sun seems to be coming straight down.
I return to the big, dominant bug. It is so big. Where is it anyway? It’s not flying. It is crawling. But there is nothing for it to be crawling ON. Its size suggests that it is on a surface much closer to me, the viewer, than the man is. But the man’s eyes seem to be staring down at it? None of this is making any sense...... unless the bug isn’t real. Are any of the bugs real or are they all just in the man’s head?
I start seeing other details and what they are. There are squiggles on various parts of the man: chest hair, leg hair, pubic hair. A nipple. The child/person clasping onto the man starts to become clearer. The hand around the chest, the foot coming around the waist/hips. I start to call him a “boy” now. The man putting one arm over the boy’s head and holding his other arm.
Break Time: Leave the Room
At this point, I left the show and went out to the adjoining hallway which has benches running down its length and is all glass on one side with an expansive view of Boston Harbor. I just stared at the harbor with a stunning autumn sky for awhile. So different from the swirling emotions in this show.
Returning to Bugs, I look for new things to explore:
- The long narrow bug sort of attached to the man’s crotch where a penis might plausibly be.
- The panic that is emerging from the man’s eyes.
- The boy’s face, but now I call it the child/man: "child" because he is small; "man" because his face seems oddly old.
- The boy’s lips that make a slightly open mouth, perhaps he is not strong enough to keep the mouth closed.
- The boy’s left eye. It seems to be fading, not focused on anything, with wandering sight-lines.
- The use of a muddy green above this eye. What does this do? It is the only place that Scutz uses this color. Is the eye or that part of the head already rotting?
- Then the hand of the boy holding onto the man’s chest. It is quite large, really enlarged. It is not in proportion to anything else. It is hurting perhaps, in pain from having to hold on (for life). But the pain makes it feel huge to the boy. It is all he can think of.
- But his other hand is small, and pink/red (burnt) and limp. There is no life there: he is already dying.
Needing relief from all this agony, my sight falls on the bug on the left. It has wings which make sense but the rest of this cluster of paint doesn’t make anatomical sense. There seems to be a kind of rabbit face looking out from between the wings. Huh? What flies here?
Metaphors and Symbols
It is time to try to move beyond the literal descriptive understanding of this painting: The a-ha for me is the realization that these bugs shouldn’t be here at all. All the bugs are jungle bugs meaning bugs that live in or near water or swamps. There are mosquitos, and other flyers that would be found on plants. There is the black and red striped bug that would evolve color like this to be disguised against similarly colored foliage. There is the cockroach itself that definitely likes damp, dark surroundings. But we are in a desert. The man is slogging through a waterless place where nothing grows or is growing.
So are the bugs really this man’s internal demons? The demons are sapping the energy from this man who is trying not just to survive but to move forward. The demons want to keep him from saving the boy. The man loves this dead or dying boy (and he definitely is a boy for me now) and he desperately wants to save him. The demons will have these two for lunch literally and figuratively.
Technique: What is the impact of How the art is made?
Looking for clues as to the artist's intentions, I turn to the techniques that Scutz uses in areas where my questions arise. The meaning of the "boy" is certainly one of these. I note that the “neck” area of boy seems oddly painted. It feels unresolved. Basically just strong slashes of muddy color. It could be on purpose though. Maybe the head is supposed to look like it’s about to fall off of the rest of the body.
Looking for more clues, I quickly glance at the other works around the room. When I first walked through many of the titles were just one word, like Bugs, Shame, Elevator, Shaving. These titles suggest how important the psychology of the situations are for Scutz. Not just he psychology of an individual but also the individual’s relationship with other people and nature. The relationship between people and the rest of nature is particularly interesting where the people don’t seem too comfortable with themselves in nature. They can’t seem to figure out where they stand within the world……how to survive within a seemingly hostile world and perhaps how to bridge the gap between themselves and the rest of nature.
Which bring me back to the bugs. I look at each of the bugs separately and more closely. When I separate them and take them out of the context of their surroundings, I find that not all of the bugs are really that threatening. Why are some of them less fearful to me the longer I look at them? First some of them have fewer legs which makes them not so creepy crawly. Second are the ones with white or almost transparent wings. These could morph into angels becoming possible harbingers of hope or showing a way out of the desert. They say: "come fly with me and the others won’t eat you". Then there is one that really is just a flat black shape. It’s more of an abstraction than a bug. It’s a threat becoming benign as it becomes just an idea of a demon/bug, not so much a real demon/bug.
In the end, how the bugs are painted causes them to individuate. As each becomes its own entity, some can be seen as offering a way to start to become one with nature rather than always fighting it to the death.
Change Perspective: New Angles
I decide to look at the work from other angles than straight on. I walk up to the wall to the right of the painting and while keeping it in view, I walk across it in a half circle. Suddenly I see something for the first time! A face is staring at me. It is dead in the center, in profile, its eye staring right at the man’s crotch. For some reason I had completely missed this detail. What to do with this? It's right at the center of the painting. It would appear to be crucial, a key to unlocking a meaning.
I go back to the big contrasts to see if I can find a way forward. Desert and Jungle Bugs. Dry and Wet, Fight for Survival and Making Connection and Love
A Retake on the Big Bug
I return to study the big bug yet again, the one that had repulsed me at the beginning. It has become eerily beautiful now. Its deep blues and near iridescence make it king of untouchable and other. It is definitely NOT dead. It is completely at ease in itself and its place in nature, the everlasting cockroach: a symbol of longevity and endless time.
I have naturally circled back to my YUCK reaction to the bugs in this painting. My question waits for an answer. What is the source of fear of and fascination with cockroaches. La cucaracha. Do we recognize in them some kind of superiority? No human wants to admit to anything being superior to ourselves. But in some way, maybe this bug has a sort of superiority. And our first reaction is to squash that. But isn't there a better alternative to our seeing nature as something to tame and fight? Indeed what might we learn from the longevity of the bugs that would help us in our own path?
I created the following story that emerges from viewing this painting. It addresses the struggle that a man sees as central to his lives: figuring out, in face of certain death, how to pass on life and make possible the continuity of the species. The man must shed his boyhood and must confront his demons in adulthood. The core of this struggle lies within himself, in the face (a potential future life) that resides at his center, at the base of his penis. He first instinct is to fight his way to a solution but a softer gentler solution is everywhere around him, in the ephemeral wings already near and around him.
Coda: Paintings of Nightmares
This viewing experience usually occurs with another individual or very small group. After viewing different works, we share our observations, and often return to relook. This happened with this show and in doing so 3 additional things emerged.
The triangles that were shadows in this painting also appeared in the painting entitled “Shame”. There may be a kind of godlike presence represented by these triangles (holy trinity?).
Bugs appeared in “Elevator” too where some seemed to be showing the way out of the entrapment of the elevator box.
I saw for the first time(!) that what I had seen as a profile of lips on the lower left leg was in fact the fingers of a hand grabbing the leg. The arm stretched outside the plane of the canvas and so what was trying to hold this man back was unclear. But that just added to the tension in the story I had created.
We also felt that a theme emerged from the show: the pieces that reached out to us for further study all represented themes that often were our nightmares.
Are these nightmares what Stutz intends when she paints? I don't know, but it is there if you look..