Beneath a yellow sun in a cheerless sky, an owl-like creature, purple with red-rimmed eyes, roosts on top of a banjo. A metal chain tethers it to a large orb on a scorched earth, giving lie to the trendy red stockings and high heels. The head of a blue flashlight juts out from under a wing, and talons grasp a sphere—is it a crystal ball? Alas, all the crystal balls, flashlights, music, eyes, and sunlight in the world cannot extricate this being from isolation and doom.

Everything and Nothing, painted in 2020, is part of American artist Dana Schutz’s first one-woman show in London, opening on September 16 at the Thomas Dane Gallery. She once painted a series about the last man on earth. Is this now the last woman? The exhibition is titled “Shadow of a Cloud Moving Slowly,” and it is impossible not to see some of these works through the prism of the current pandemic. Known for large, colorful canvases that pose existential questions, as well as for her keen self-analysis, Schutz welcomes multiple interpretations of the symbolic elements she commingles with tangled bodies. She wants the viewer to “finish the painting,” which means that the guessing game is part of the fun.

Schutz’s career took off soon after graduate school, at Columbia University, and has been on a largely upward trajectory ever since. At 44, she is the veteran of numerous international museum and gallery shows, and her work is in prominent collections worldwide. Recognized as one of the leading artists of her generation, Schutz has been called expressionistic, surrealistic, abstract, and realistic. She’s all these and more. A close observer of the here and now, adept at capturing the essence of pop culture, she also reveres legends such as Alice Neel, Philip Guston, Picasso, and Max Beckmann, whose approaches she freely samples without an ounce of nostalgia.

But it hasn’t all been rosy. Schutz’s Open Casket, a painting of Emmett Till that was in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, met with fierce resistance from the Black community. The painting was inspired by a photograph of Till in his funeral casket, left open at the behest of his mother so that everyone could see how he had been brutalized. Those who protested felt this to be unacceptable appropriation by Schutz, who is white. Artists throughout history have been called to account for their work, but to be so viciously targeted was a true crucible for Schutz, one she appeared to liken to an earthquake in the widely praised 2019 show that followed at New York’s Petzel Gallery. The painting, which Schutz has put away and says she will never sell, has become an art-historical Maginot Line: before Open Casket and after.

Rough water: Schutz’s Boat Group.

At first glance, you might not recognize Schutz for the bold and controversial painter and sculptor that she is. Soft-spoken, often wearing a slouchy sweater, she still bears traces of that precocious girl from a Livonia, Michigan, family of artists who dedicated herself to painting at age 15. But in life as in art, appearances can be deceiving. Under the Little Orphan Annie mop and behind the clear blue eyes is a driven talent exquisitely channeling contemporary life on the edge. It is this nuanced take on a wide range of subject matter, along with a robust style, that distinguishes her from the pack.

Schutz reveres Alice Neel, Philip Guston, and Picasso, whose approaches she freely samples without an ounce of nostalgia.

Other paintings at Thomas Dane perpetuate the end-of-the-world motif that often recurs in Schutz’s work. In Floating Pieta, the Madonna is a lime-green ghoul in a polluted pink sky cradling—or is she choking?—her red-faced holy child. Schutz, a mother of three who once said breastfeeding was a calamity—“like wrestling a badger”—appears to be empathizing with a desperate parent under lockdown. Similarly, in Boat Group, nestled among the wild-eyed heads jammed into a small craft is an ocher, James Ensor–style visage blithely spewing toxic vapor. Heft, a sculpture from 2019—the year in which Schutz began to make small sculptures that echo the materiality and impasto of her paintings—has a figure weighed down with what now resembles a spiky coronavirus molecule. In fact, the peril of enclosure—a through line in Schutz’s work (see her 2002 painting Sneeze or 2015’s Fight in an Elevator)—is now eerily emblematic of our current confinement. Maybe she does have a crystal ball.

Not all painting: Schutz’s Heft.

Schutz says she thinks of her characters as real people, each one with distinguishing attributes or foibles, imbued with certain qualities that may or may not work to their advantage. The characters in a search party, for example, are blind. On the other hand, her nude in The Visible World, from the 2019 Petzel show, is a combination of Manet’s Olympia, a Picasso demoiselle, and a Playboy centerfold, a woman who could stare down a virus or anything else in her path. Other, newer characters—a model, a robot, a Neanderthal, lumberjacks—are more ambiguous, even though their stylistic signature is equally fraught. As Schutz has matured, so has her ability to draw the viewer into her jolie laide subject matter. It’s apocalyptic with a cherry on top.

The Thomas Dane show expands Schutz’s range: humans can be toxic, but nature, too, is increasingly to be reckoned with. Yet it would be a mistake to think that her art addresses only the topical. In its multiple layers of meaning and wholly original style, it is art for the ages. The coronavirus cloud may be moving slowly, but Schutz races ahead.

Patricia Zohn is an Editor at Large for Air Mail