Over the past few weeks, flatbed trucks sent out from Gagosian Gallery have been picking up motorcycles and newish skateboard ramps at sites all around the Metropolitan area. One of the ramps, flipped upside-down, will make up a monumental sculptures in artist Dan Colen’s solo debut at Gagosian Chelsea in September. The motorcycles will be tipped in a line, like dominos. The artist doesn’t skateboard anymore, though, and the piece isn’t about skateboarding. “I think that artworks are like these spiritual objects, I think that they have energies and powers beyond what the eye can see,” said Mr. Colen. A skateboard is “an abstraction, very simply. It should have an awkward, unbelievable quality.”
Following Snow’s death, ‘my life has changed drastically, and my work has followed.’ Mr. Colen doesn’t drink or do drugs now, he said. He also quit smoking.
An interesting ritual of the art world is watching artists, especially young men, reconcile their work with being in a position of power that carries the expectation that they be surprising and rebellious. Mr. Colen is among the higher-profile artists who have recently had to walk that line. His coming of age-he’s 31 this week-coincided with the rapid rise of the art market and of an art-hungry fashion press that lavished attention on Mr. Colen and his young, downtown New York-based peers like Dash Snow and Nate Lowman. Their myth required of Mr. Colen a hyper-masculine, apolitical sort of rebellion. (For one work for his 2006 show in Berlin, he photographed a Jewish prayer shawl hanging from his erect penis.) In 2007, together with Snow, he organized the instantly famous Nest at Deitch Projects, in which they shredded newspapers and made a mess like rock stars might in a hotel room, cleaning staff be damned. Like much of Mr. Colen’s work, it was banal, romantic and eminently social.
The recession affected these artists beyond economics-it coincided with the death exactly one year ago yesterday of the group’s spiritual leader, Snow, from a heroin overdose. “I grew up with Dash, and I learned a lot about myself, watching him and making a transition from childhood into adulthood with him,” said Mr. Colen, sitting in his ground-floor studio near the opening to the Holland Tunnel. Following Snow’s death, “my life has changed drastically, and my work has followed.”
Mr. Colen doesn’t drink or do drugs now, he said. He also quit smoking. “What I was doing a few years ago, I was spending a lot of time in the studio, but I made really bad decisions about where to spend my downtime in the art world. I needed to at the time, but …”
Said Sam Orlofsky, the Gagosian director who works with Mr. Colen on a day-to-day basis, “[Dan’s lifestyle] was something that made me nervous. It represented an obstacle for me. People will marginalize themselves living like that.” Fortunately, he said, “Dan has not done that.”
The Gagosian exhibition will be Mr. Colen’s first solo show since 2003. Getting a show at Gagosian means a huge gallery, display in a chapel to art, and access to an international system of distribution that bypasses other galleries. “Gagosian wasn’t my goal, and I was conscious of why a young artist should not show there,” Mr. Colen said. (Such early success is presumed to stagnate young painters around a signature kind of work). “But as I went bigger and bigger [in scale of art], my only experience was one of convenience. I needed this much space and so much flexibility, and this was the only gallery that was doing that.”
The “interesting thing about Dan, and his peer group, was that energy that was coming out, even if the work wasn’t always precise,” said Italian dealer Massimo De Carlo, who met Mr. Colen at Art Basel in Miami four or five years ago, and remembers that he was very drunk. Now, “Dan’s work is getting more and more interesting because he’s losing some of his initial innocence.”
Mr. Colen’s New York rise has been swift.
The press release for his solo debut in 2003, at the now closed Rivington Arms Gallery, described his paintings as “an experience in the spectacle of opulence.” The hammy compliments referred to the exquisite detail and theatrical lighting in his oil paintings. He painted scenes from a young, religious and Nike-wearing man’s apartment: One was of an unmade bed, with a vignette occurring in miniature under the bedside lamp, in which the tiny hand of God offers pills to a desperate martyr. The “opulence” referred to his painting of lifestyle, and the confidence that allowed Colen to indiscriminately match a very serious studio practice and genre painting with a tiny and pretty stupid little scene with cartoon characters.
But Mr. Colen’s best-known work in those early years was Secrets and Cymbals, Smoke and Scissors (My Friend Dash’s Wall in the Future) (2004), a photorealistic, to-scale painting of the accumulation of pop-political clippings and cartoons kept by his friend. A vigorous self-presentation by Mr. Colen of himself; of the photographer of lifestyle and youth Ryan McGinley; and of Snow, it bound the three together artistically. He grew up around Mr. McGinley and Snow, because he lived in Leonia, N.J., and would skateboard into Manhattan in 10 minutes over the George Washington Bridge, he said.
The wall was meant as a shrine to all that. “It’s kind of corny, but I’ve had really intense experiences in all these places, which have stuck with me,” says Mr. Colen. “I’m thinking about the Western Wall and Mecca.”
A couple of years later, around the time of his selection to the 2006 Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial, Mr. Colen was making sculptures in the form of boulders, which he slowly painted as if they’d been outside and accrued bird shit, graffiti and gum.
“In my fantasy, they were taken from spots where kids would collect; it was where they staked out their turf, but also where they put gum, like under their desk, or under a bar.” He added: “A lot of my things have generated out of objects that people can congregate around… a lot of it comes out of my experience growing up; the work thus far has had teenage reference points.”
The boulders led to Mr. Colen’s bird shit paintings, for which he painted thick, dull coats of whites and browns, grays and greens, which seemed to spray from a single point, absorbing in places and mostly sitting on top, hugging the surface. It was a one-liner about painting shit, but it was beautiful as such. From bird shit, Mr. Colen moved to gum. He began by sticking it right on the canvas. More recently, he’s heated the gum and heaved it across the canvas to capture its weight and movement.
What sets Mr. Colen apart from his peers is just how formal the paintings are, and the faith he puts in the canvas. The early paintings used the classical technique of trompe l’oeil, because, he says, “I’ve always been interested in moments of disbelief. … I don’t know if they possess any magic, but they do have something.”
Lately, Mr. Colen’s been choosing increasingly gigantic canvases, which makes his gestures look a lot more heroic, and a lot more like Brice Marden and Jackson Pollock. It’s been a long time since we’ve thought about them. Mr. Colen, Mr. Orlofsky argued, represents a return of storytelling to new painting and its very grand narratives.
Mr. Colen is now at work on a new series, based on confetti, some of which involves him sprinkling the material on top. For others, he’s projected the falling confetti and then painted. In all of the works, there is all-over composition and absolutely no depth. The confetti is like a backdrop, a stage set for a pathetic party. He began working on the works at about the time of the passing of Snow. “The confetti doesn’t represent what you’re expecting it to,” he said. In its overwhelming size, it pulls you in, and pushes you away, unfeeling. “This show,” he said, “has a lot to do with failure, redemption, accident and time at its most minute and most infinite, It’s about how powerful a single simple gesture can be.”