American artist Dan Colen is part of the art scene that has recently developed around New York’s Lower East Side. Informally known as the “Bowery School,” artists such as Colen, Nate Lowman, Aaron Young, Ryan McGinley, Gardar Eide Einarsson, Banks Violette, Dash Snow (who died in 2009), Agathe Snow, Hanna Liden, Lizzie Bougatsos and Adam McEwen share an engagement with the city they live in and with “sub-urban” culture in general.
Their narratives revolve around the social fabric that determines contemporary life—with their savvy, sincerity and social alertness they are the “street kids” artists.
This new generation of artists has absorbed and moved beyond the philosophical questions posed by Appropriation Art, the dominant trend on the American art scene since Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Cubist collages. For many decades, artists responded to the implications of such works, which most prominently led to Pop artists’ self-conscious use of quotations, and to more recent, conceptual-based practices of reproducing photography (Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine), re-painting paintings (Elaine Sturtevant, Mike Bidlo), and creating imaginary works based on cultural/popular references (Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons).
In contrast, Colen works directly from his own environment. Moving both within and outside the parameters of art history, which is still preoccupied with the Baudrillarian “society of simulacra,” the artist leaves behind entrenched notions of authenticity or originality, and approaches its different languages and genres as he does the real world: full of raw materials for new works. Without irony, he dives straight into its repertoire, picking out themes and ideas that others are likely to be working on too, but confident that his own output will nonetheless be different.
Colen’s oeuvre is made up of paintings, photos, sculptures, installations, ready-mades and films. He is an urban poet whose narratives traverse inner and outer spaces, public and private, and simultaneously invite the spectator into an intimate, personal sphere and out on the streets in an urban environment full of rude confrontations and a constant fight to mark one’s territory. His canvases take us from the artist’s bedroom and introspective self-portraits, where imaginary and real-life figures exist within the same magical realism, via non-specific urban hang-out spots, littered with pigeon shit, chewing gum, graffiti “screams,” urban waste, broken windows, and basketball backboards, to natural habitats with grass, earth and flowers.
Throughout Colen’s work we witness a constant, intense dialog with art historical figures, including Jackson Pollock, Arman, Yves Klein, Jeff Wall and Richard Prince. His non-linear narratives, or stories within stories, create a hyperrealistic pictorial language which intricately combines reality with fantasy, and religious metaphysics with Walt Disney. Over the last decade, the artist has developed a coherent body of work which uses hyperrealism, trompe l’oeuil and illusionism as its points of departure, and which refuses to become dictated by expectations of a union between language and form. This is not a liberated and traditional re-invention of “expressionism,” but rather a style of “objectified expression,” loaded with multilayered meanings and a unique dialectic between form and content: here, hyperrealism meets graffiti and abstract expressionism. While Colen’s paintings might look like “classic” abstract paintings, charged with the energy, power and masculinity of a Pollock, they are, in fact, “figurative” depictions of bird shit, impress of a grass field or “gestuality” with chewing gum. His technically accomplished works become especially sarcastic and subtly cynical when references to popular culture meet art historical precedents.
Colen’s works are concerned with duality and enlist a fragmented, gradual perception: the form and the content of his works at times appear independent of one another. In a Deleuzian sense, they bring on moments of “pure sensation” before the work of art reveals itself. Colen’s chewing gum paintings are far from copies of Pollock’s drip paintings; they are sincere, autonomous works of semiotic abstraction, where the artist either imitates pigeon shit with oil colors or substitutes oil with chewing gum or confetti. His work also involves a metaphoric ambiguity, or more precisely a subtle act of transformation and subversion, which penetrates his images. Despite a first impression of coolness and distance, one senses the artist’s personal engagement with the subject matter. He deliberately loosens his grip on his materials (bird shit, chewing gum) and lets the results transcend the original idea, in the process drawing the spectator closer to the work. However, despite his desire to let go—Colen insists that the “aura” of the art work is to be found in the little mistakes that happen in the process of its creation— he defiantly maintains a state of control through his use of hyperrealism, whereby he determines what is real and what falls “beyond reality.” Thus by distancing himself from the creative process, Colen obtains his unique, metaphorical amalgamation of skepticism and subversive humor, not simply directed towards Pollock, but towards cultural history more generally.
It is tempting to understand Colen’s paintings of posters with pictures of lost teenagers, whose memory fade with time, and his rundown and abandoned city corners invaded by pigeons and pigeon shit in terms of a generational conflict between a disillusioned youth and an established, if outmoded notion of high culture. While his large paintings may resemble abstract expressionistic paintings, representing the hey-day of American modernism, they are, in reality, portrayals of bird shit, “action paintings” made from chewing gum with all its connotations of artificiality, carelessness and purposelessness. In these self-referring works it is possible to enter a world of illusion. By mixing reality and fantasy, drama and frivolity, Colen exemplifies a nihilistic attitude and desire to escape. His superb realism is not only about the objects themselves, but about the added value of the discourses and representations of reality.