Dan Colen at the Brant Foundation
By Jason Edward Kaufman
Druggies tend to crash and burn, but a few are canny and lucky enough to turn their subversion into a thriving art career. Dan Colen, a Jewish guy (b. 1979) who grew up in Leonia, NJ, is one of them. After art school at the Rhode Island School of Design, he fell in with a cohort of artsy substance abusers on the Lower East Side, a crew that included Nate Lowman, Ryan McGinley, Aaron Young, Adam McEwen, Slater Bradley and Dash Snow, the black sheep of the Texas-oil-wealthy de Menil family of art patrons. Drugs and dissipation were their guiding principles. Their desultory art ranged from graffiti and drawings to installations of low-culture appropriated images and found objects, and photos and videos of wild-child escapades combining nudity, narcotics and helter-skelter chaos, sometimes at high-society parties to which Snow gained them entrée. Collectively they were hailed as representative of generational disillusionment and decay.
Bohemian counterculture has always been bankable in the art market, and Colen and several of his peers were soon christened art stars. After only a handful of downtown group shows he found himself in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and sought after by powerful dealers and collectors including Jeffrey Deitch, Charles Saatchi, Dakis Joannou, Peter Brant and Larry Gagosian, who has interrupted his gallery’s schedule of Monet, Picasso, Twombly, Kiefer and Koons exhibitions to mount Colen solo shows at outposts in Paris, Rome, Athens, London and New York.
With gallery and auction house marketers positioning him as an amalgam of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, Colen cranks out abstract canvases covered with chewing gum, snack wrappers, mylar confetti, flower petals, dirt, tar and feathers, metal studs, bodily fluids, and oil paint spattered to resemble bird droppings. His signature sculptures are papier mâché boulders encrusted with photos, newspaper clippings, porn and graffiti. Other pieces feature warped-glass basketball backboards, toppled motorcycles, cement-filled Whoopee cushions, and lifelike sculptures of Wile E. Coyote and the artist himself lying naked on the floor.
Incorporating low-brow imagery and materials resonant of an angst-ridden demimonde milieu, his works embody destruction, rot, confusion, and irreverence for high-art pretense. The best abstract chewing-gum, floral and confetti works have a redeeming, somewhat wan beauty, but Pollocks made of chewing gum or faux bird shit come off as trite bad-boy calculations. His representational paintings of appropriated imagery are technically run-of-the-mill, and the few flashes of originality – whisps of smoke that spell out slang expressions – are not especially rewarding to view or contemplate. Yet, despite slanderous reviews, within a few years the prices for his works have risen from the low five figures to more than $3 million, paid in May for a 2006 canvas based on a still from a Disney movie.
The art market is totally unregulated, so it is never clear if price inflation reflects high demand for short supply or the manipulations of players with vested interest in ratcheting up values at public auction. In any case, celebrity is self-fulfilling, and Colen has reaped the rewards. Sober since his friend Snow died of a heroin overdose in 2009, Colen now owns a 40-acre farm in the Hudson River Valley and a sprawling studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where a team of assistants produce his rapidly expanding portfolio. The latest rung on his ascent is a one-man show at the Brant Foundation where a retrospective of 71 pieces fills a multi-story gallery that newsprint magnate Brant established in a converted barn next to a polo field on his Greenwich, CT estate. Titled “Help,” the survey is open by appointment weekdays through late September. brantfoundation.org.
- The artist with Holy Shit, a 2003 enamel and molding paste painting on a 48 x 36-inch wood panel that greets visitors to the Brant Foundation show. A slightly larger 2006 word painting, No Sex No War No Me, sold in June 2011 at Christie’s London for $113,289 (prices include buyer and sellerpremiums).
- TBT, 2010 (left), is an almost 10-foot-wide chewing-gum abstraction that simultaneously emulates and mocks Jackson Pollock. The Virgin (or Virgin Schmirgin), 2006 (center), is an 8-foot-tall mixed media sculpture. A similar graffitied boulder, Vete al Diablo, 2006, that debuted in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, was later owned by Charles Saatchi and sold at Sotheby’s NY in May for $965,000.
- Love Roses, a 2011 collaboration with Nate Lowman, consists of glass crack pipes and beads strung together into a gossamer curtain that lines the stairwell. Each pipe contains a paper flower that allows retailers to pretend they are decorative gift items.
- Secrets and Cymbals, Smoke and Scissors (My friend Dash’s Wall in the Future)is a 2004 recreation of Dash Snow’s East Village apartment, a collage of product packaging, Gulf War clippings, porn and graffiti that captures the tenor of the period for Colen and his friends. Brant acquired it from Charles Saatchi in 2012.
- The artist with an installation he made at the Brant Foundation by partially interring a pair of trucks. Titled At Least They Died Together (After Dash), 2014, the piece alludes to the loss of his friend Dash Snow, who died of an overdose in 2009. For the opening Colen hurled rocks at the trucks as punk musicians performed atop the upright vehicles.
- No Way Jose, 2008-09, an oil on canvas, is based on an animation cell of Geppetto’s table from the 1940 Disney film Pinocchio. Colen makes whisps of smoke from the candle spell out the slang phrase of the title. An earlier and much larger work from the series,Boo Fuck’n Hoo, 2006, sold at Christie’s NY in May for more than $3 million.
- Infinite Jest, 2012, is a pile of barbed wire, metal and wood debris populated by yellow canaries. It’s not much to look at, but the birds suggest that life and delicate beauty can emerge even in a pile of garbage.
Jason Edward Kaufman //
This article appeared in Artphaire (Online), July 10, 2014.