When lymphoma struck Costa Mesa painter Danny Schutt several years ago, he buried himself in the work of the late Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a man famous for writing about his time in USSR's prison camps, as well as a fictionalized account of his own bout with cancer. After back surgery to remove a tumor that was crippling him, intensive chemotherapy and learning how to walk again, it's not surprising that Schutt felt a kinship with the author: He had been in a gulag of sorts, too.
Solzhenitsyn was a hero in Reagan-era America, but hindsight gives us a clearer perspective: a dogmatic religious conservative championed by the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Solzhenitsyn was also an anti-Semite with a long history of blaming the Russian Revolution and Stalinism on Jews, as well as a nationalist foolishly attached to his country's czarist past, with little tolerance for Western democracy. Schutt's new exhibition at Rothick Art Haus, "By Hundreds and Thousands," is obviously influenced by Solzhenitsyn's work—there's even a copy of the writer's novel Cancer Ward lying on a shelf in the gallery's lobby—but it's doubtful the Nobel Prize-winning author would be familiar to the people targeted by the gallery or that they're likely to "get" the historical significance of the images, as the current generation has never known of Russia as anything but an uneasy ally and the only mention of socialism it hears comes from the mouths of angry Tea Party members.
Curated by Nick Rothweiler, any context that would be provided by Schutt's medical back story or mission statement is conspicuously absent. Using wheat-pasted newsprint on wood panels as his canvas, Schutt painstakingly sketches out his images, and then paints them in black and, occasionally, red ink or acrylic, the process he uses accentuating the usually white background, as if the people on the canvases (laborers in To the Last Clang of the Rail or prisoners being escorted past a building in A Day Without a Dark Cloud) are fading into the literal pages of history, ghosts and spirits caught in a metaphorical snowstorm that still haunts our present.
"By Hundreds and Thousands" at Rothick Art Haus, www.rothick.com. Open Sat.-Sun., noon- 5 p.m.; and by appointment. Through Sept. 3. Free.
The scruffy mug shots of men with haunted eyes in Prisoner 281, Prisoner 282 and Prisoner 283 get our immediate mournful respect, but there's also the feeling the artist is too wrapped up in a kind of romantic longing for the revolution that put those prisoners in gaol. And you can almost hear the masses singing "The Internationale" as you gaze at crowds of peasants carrying banners protesting the Romanovs while Big Brother Lenin watches over them (Masters of this House) and Kalashnikovs, adorned with flowers, float in a red background of American newspapers (Life Is Beautiful). The solemn proletariat revolutionaries with rifles (By Hundreds and Thousands) half-smile at the viewer as the series of seven post-card-sized drawings of a murder of crows exhibited above the painting look as if they're flying over the revolutionary's heads, lending exhilaration and movement to the freedom the men are fighting for.
So what's Schutt trying to say? Quoted statements from the press packet and an online search maintain that his view of the world is a positive one, the dark subject matter just his way of directly dealing with the world's problems. I respect that, but while none of his pictures shows violence in any explicit way, there's an underlying tension present when you show romantic images of revolutionary-era protest. Is he as reactionary as his literary hero, advocating "freedom" while ignoring its bloody implications? Is he expanding on George Santayana's quote about those who forget the past being condemned to repeat it? Is he in thrall to the images that comforted him when he was sick and need to be looked at differently now that's he's in remission? Or is Schutt just a fan of AK-47s? Too bad there's just not enough information—in either the paintings or the curation of the work—to fully answer that question.
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In contrast, curator Rothweiler's installation in the same show, Uprooted, builds on the underlying questions inherent in Schutt's work but makes its statement more precisely: The three concrete AK-47s and five hand grenades floating in the air are brown, dirty and covered with roots grasping at a patch of mossy earth below them. That brutality is organic to any land that contains people seems obvious, but I liked Rothweiler's suggestion that in order to conquer it, one needs to yank it out of the earth like a weed. Artist Shawn Bishop-Leo's four mixed-media paintings also deal in romanticized archetypes—this time, the strong woman—but less successfully. The silk-screened pictures of women on hideous wallpaper aren't very attractive, despite the fleurs-de-lis (a female symbol of spiritual virtue) cut into them and the addition of found objects.
The problem is that the artist's feminist portraits aren't altogether different from the tough-chick imagery we'd see in exploitation movies made by guys: attractive women, indifferent to the gaze of others, scantily dressed, bound in rope, a set of handcuffs waiting nearby. There may be less nudity, but with names such as La Dura (Spanish for "The Hard One"), Boxed Beef and One That Got Away, even the titles reek of Grade-B schlock.
This review appeared in print as "You Say You Want a Revolution? The latest exhibit at Rothick Art Haus can't decide if it's pro-uprising or just likes AK-47s."