Narrative Painting Part I: Dan Schein’s “Where Do We Dump the Bodies?”

Michael Weiss Gallery Sept 8-Oct 8 2016

 The Skepticism of the Angry Man Landed Him in a Mire of Gloom and Doom, oil on canvas, 66”x 92” 2016

I wonder if other women or even children are beginning to think that adult males are becoming a little too comfortable with the role of the anti-hero? The hopeless, hapless guy who doesn’t know how to fix things, including his relationships, and is too old at 23, at 34, at 47, etc, to learn anything. Totem animal: randy goat, best quality: sense of humor.

In this episode, Dan Schein shows him fleeing to the Adirondacks, post apocalypse I think. The gallery notes deny that the paintings share a narrative and I’m not totally denying that denial but can’t help seeing them that way anyway, because most of the show looks like a scene from a cartoon—a picaresque figure moving through an unchanging landscape.

A great thing about a narrative art is that it’s open to psychological interpretation and the reviewer must also reveal something of herself to pursue it. Here goes.

One of the “scribbled” drawings (that is a quote from the gallery notes and they do seem to be made at a breakneck speed) shows a crying woman seated on a log, and a man seated far away from her but close to us, freaking out.

Abysmal Landscape Series No.2 graphite on paper 22”x30,” 2016
Abysmal Landscape Series No.2, graphite on paper, 22”x30,” 2016

This drawing is very important to the show because in almost all of the works, the male figure who dominates the scene, who I will call the protagonist, has a very particular look on his face. It’s not a Whitman “Yawp!”. It’s a “Yikes!”

Here it is:

Man With Lantern, oil on canvas, 66”x92,” 2016 (detail)
Man With Lantern, oil on canvas, 66”x92,” 2016 (detail)

The expression reads as an overwhelming feeling of male inadequacy—the drawing places the blame on female expectations. You know, when you feel so unequal to a situation in such a personal way that you’re not sharing the feelings of those around you in a crisis because you feel that you ought to be the hero instead and everybody around you has to stop what they are doing to pump you up, while hoping you will rally and start to solve the problem together with them.

Schein may or may not realize how this appears to female viewers, or to male viewers who don’t exit difficult situations in this particular way—it’s hard to tell. But he does play it for the humor and it is pretty comic. Like the guy who is up shit creek with a paddle. Skepticism…(see above) This painting stands alone more than the rest; the central figure is embedded in a landscape that is as expressive as he is. It has many beautiful passages and a varied palette. I think that is why I identified with his plight—maybe the painter took more distance so I didn’t have to.

The Skepticism of the Angry Man Landed Him in a Mire of Gloom and Doom, oil on canvas, (detail) see painting above
The Skepticism of the Angry Man Landed Him in a Mire of Gloom and Doom, oil on canvas, (detail) see painting above


Man With Lantern, oil on canvas, 66”x92,” 2016

Man With Lantern doesn’t work as well because the landscapes, throughout the show, though energetically painted, become repetitive, but it’s funny too, calling up Diogenes’ search for an honest man and also the painter peering out to see who’s in the audience, illuminating us. It is also odd to think that, minus electricity and googling how to do things, if dropped into the wilderness we would look like pioneers very quickly—or actually, worse. Maybe put a reference book or two in your survival kit.

And check out the shark in this one:


The shark has the exact same expression as Cain and Abel on The Raft of the Medusa! The Yikes, again. This painting so nearly worked for me. What messed it up is the white thing floating in the sea behind them. I wanted something else to look at in this and other paintings, a way to circle the main action, but the white thing draws my attention and isn’t worth it.


Other images from the show include a woman on a couch lounging dangling a shoe. You know…Woman is good for one thing only—when she’s not crying—and there’s the obligatory goat. A couple of vultures in a tree were way too thin to deserve the size of the painting—it worked better as a New Yorker cartoon:


It is a question in my mind—what relation does narrative painting have to novels, films, cartoon films, graphic novels—genres that we flip through or watch or read to the end of? I have always felt disappointed that the time-based genres don’t exist when you pause them. I’m excited about a rebirth of narrative painting: It will have to be a reinvention for the artist—and the viewer. Or a pair of viewers—who will be able to look at the painting and discuss its relation to their experiences.

Talking Pictures doesn’t accept “likes” or brief comments but would particularly like to publish letters, especially ones that disagree with the views expressed by this author.


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