Degree show season is upon us, with talent scouts and bargain hunters poised for the annual crop of MFA hopefuls. With market and museums alike so focused on the young, schools that have produced overnight stars are subject to art-world cradle-snatchers everywhere.
Five years ago, at Columbia, your heart might have been stolen by a Dana Schutz. Should you have, your pocket book would now share the enthusiasm, as Ms. Schutz's auction record, set this March, stands at $132,000.
If Columbia has outstripped national competitors like Yale, Cal Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago for the no. 1 spot on the academic radar, that is in part because of buzz generated by the press. Jerry Saltz, who is soon to move to New York magazine after a long stint at the Village Voice, devoted a December 2002 column to Ms. Schutz's debut show in her graduation year. The piece helped to secure Mr. Saltz's position as oracle of the neophytes, as well as Ms. Schutz's critical profile. As a visiting critic at Columbia, he enjoyed a head start in the discovery of Ms. Shutz. Exposure to tastemakers is a prime draw for a competitive MFA program ó a justification of the exorbitant tuition.
To those of us who put aesthetics over ethics, the important thing in the Saltz-Schutz case is that the critic was "on the money" in the right sense of that phrase: The generosity was justified. Her third solo show with Zach Feuer is charged with magnificent energy. Ms. Schutz is an artist with renewable sources of inventiveness and freshness whose work is maturing at an exponential rate.
Usually, an artist has to choose between directness and complexity, stridency and nuance, abstract qualities and psychological ones. But Ms. Schutz sustains a highwire balancing act by reconciling these opposites.
She made her mark with paintings packed equally with narrative incident and gestural verve. Her handwriting is goofy and naive, with fast delivery through seemingly sloppy, carefree strokes. Actually, paint is forced to convey prodigious varieties of texture and mood, temperature and speed. Typically, she delivers big paintings with equally big casts of characters. While figures and faces are rendered with a childlike perfunctoriness, each character ó however populated a scene ó is a credible individual.
Her new show, "Stand by Earth Man," includes works that seem intent on communicating with the future, or with another planet, about how humanity performed various tasks, arcane or quotidian. A show stopper of muralist proportions, "How We Cured the Plague" (2007), at 10 feet by 12 feet, depicts a hangarlike space packed with patients, doctors, a cage of monkeys, and a sprawling whale rigged up with tubes. These connect to a patient, his arms outstretched and beset by tumorous boils, standing on a pedestal, a christomorphic Man of Sorrows. The way a mass of characters and objects intersects at odd angles and conflicting spatial laws brings the wacky resurrection paintings of Stanley Spencer to mind. Through big semicircular windows, the sun rises in a new dawn for health and humanity.
"How We Would Give Birth" collides pleasure and pain in its imagery as surely as it does clumsiness and finesse in its delivery: The mother, like Picasso's women, is a fusion of naturalness and distortion. Her baby splatters blood on an otherwise luxuriant expanse of smooth yellow denoting the bed linens. The woman gazes at an idyllic landscape that observes perspectival laws that the rest of the painting, as if reacting to the convulsive pressures of birthing, flouts. The conventional naturalism of the landscape also contrasts with the primitive intensity used to capture the curlicues of the carved frame, the decorated tissue container, the woman's contracted toes. The real, in other words, has a primitive charge denied to art, artifice, fantasy.
"How We Would Talk" has a woman, seen from the back, at a callbox. Nonchalantly, she rubs her fingers through grime on the glass to allow a clear view of the landscape beyond. This poignant pictorial device magically makes the image psychically as well as physically layered.
It is tempting, with an artist like Ms. Schutz, to relate her achievements to Old Masters while at the same time thinking of her as a force of nature, arriving fully formed like Venus on a shell. But one of her professors, Gregory Amenoff, also has a show opening tonight, his first in four years and his debut with Alexandre. Mr. Amenoff helped form the Columbia MFA program 13 years ago.
The myth of Venus might be painful for art teachers: She was, after all, born from an older god's castration. But a striking affinity between master and pupil does, in this instance, seem clear in the way they each balance awkwardness and elasticity.
As if it wants to prove the point, Ms. Schutz's most Amenoffian painting is "Dad" (2007), with the title word scrawled upside down on a beach. It is the most lyrical work in her show, its unaffected paint handling, succulent inner light and sensuous scumble also directly recalling, as it happens, a new Alexandre stablemate of Mr. Amenoff's, Lois Dodd.
Mr. Amenoff paints intense, romantic, densely woven landscapes of pronounced mystical bent. These belong very much within the American tradition of Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove, and, before them, Albert Pinkham Ryder.
Mr. Amenoff's new work eschews the scale that had been a hallmark of his debut years, in the 1980s (his Schutz moment, the less kind might observe, when he was an ascendant star). The reduced scale works wonders for his vision, compacting and energizing his compositions. Each work has the literal and metaphorical weight of an icon. His paint does not let you forget that it is paint: The forms seem carved out of the medium as much as they do modeled in it.
What gives the work its occult edge is a penchant for crystalline forms that nestle between the geometric and the organic. "Alabaster" (2006) features a weird rock formation, a bit like Etretat on the Normandy coast, beloved of artists from Courbet through Matisse. But it is also cathedrallike in the funky Jugendstil of Rudolf Steiner.
He loves edges colliding from different spatial zones or pushing up against one another: "Sun Pillar" (2007) for instance, has a curtainlike shape to the left, a rich brocade of figure S's and vinelike curls in green against darker green picked out in purple that abuts the mountains and sky beyond. Here, as in other paintings, a burst of light is made viscous and fibrous. Light solidifying in the process of its depiction charges the painting with a sense of the miraculous, a kind of transubstantiation.
Schutz until May 19 (530 W. 24th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-989-7700);
Amenoff until May 31 (41 E. 57th St. at Madison Avenue, 212-755-2828).