Sk8er Boi

dan-colen-harleysDan Colen: Poetry
Gagosian Gallery, NYC

Through October 16, 2010

When we are young we think as children do; we see the world as full of promise, often mistaking signs for wonders. We start by faith, and consummate by vision, at least according to St. Augustine. When we grow older we put away childish things -- or, in the case of Dan Colen, who is having his first exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery, exhibit them in a pristine, polished concrete, Chelsea art space.

Mr. Colen's show doesn't so much occupy the gallery space as sulk against the walls. One meets these guarded, obdurent, art objects head-on. "The Sweetest Thing" (2010), a freestanding wall -- brick, concrete, steel and re-bar, is the first obstacle one encounters upon entering the first room. A passing reference, perhaps, to Minimalist sculpture via Gordon Matta Clark, subbing as an homage to the passing of his friend, the late Dash Snow, who Mr. Colen commemorated in an earlier work by faithfully recreated Mr. Snow’s studio wall, trompe-l'oeil style. Colen's referencing of his earlier work pulls a neat sleight of hand -- one reaches out to touch the piece, expecting to find painted Styrofoam, and is met with brick. By pulling us in to what we think we know, then cheating us out of the payoff, the piece manages to attract and repel, much like an Olsen Twin. In contrast to the eerie and sublime "Dash's Wall," a surreal, prophetic, and wry bit of insider art, we are given just the wall -- brick, concrete, etc. -- without any the magical transformation by metaphor and faux technique.

In the second gallery Colen gives us a row of 13 parked Harley Davidson motorcycles, "Cracks in the Clouds" (2010) (image, above left), which he painted and wrapped himself after a photograph of a row of 13 parked Harleys he saw on a street. These bikes have toppled oops-fashion, like dominos, and now lie on the floor in a fallen row, like a Carl Andre sculpture. Mr. Colen has shown his sign-shop chops in the past, recreating graffiti on walls, canvases with ersatz tags, and most skillfully, deconstructing Walt Disney animation cells. While his bike detailing here might not be up to Jesse James's standards, as a sculptural recreation of The Last Supper it by far surpasses the ironic-dissaffected-youth set pieces of his past.

The third gallery proves a bit harder to reconcile—but challenges in a more complex way. Three paintings, very large, rent a lot of very valuable Chelsea wall space, but are dominated by "Overture" (2010), an inverted half-pipe, which looms like the Arc de Triomphe in the center of the space. “A Love Story” and “Another Country” (both 2010) are in Colen’s signature chewing-gum medium. Extruded and smeared skeins of melted chewing gum are layered on the canvas, building up an impastoed surface reminiscent of Jean Fautrier’s "Hostages" series. The drying gum arrests the gesture of the artist’s hand (or it looks like in some cases a trowel), the gum oozes and sags of it’s own weight; the sickly pastel colors give the works a kind of trippy, cartoon feeling. Colen may be taking the piss out of Ab-Ex painting, but unlike, say, Richard Prince in his recent paintings, he has a lighter, more deft, hand.

"The Space Between Nothing and Everything (2010), in oil on canvas, is an articulately rendered depiction of confetti, traced from a photograph. While it is a beautiful painting, with it’s nods toward Willem de Kooning and Brice Marden, it seems to cry out for a more substantial meaning. What it most brings to mind is a motif from Bret Easton Ellis’s fin de siecle novel “Glamorama”; where the settings are described as "sets", constantly filled with the swirling debris of confetti from after-parties; the air cold and dank and smelling of shit. Like Mr. Ellis, whose writing has been hailed, derided and finally assimilated into the cultural canon, Mr. Colen's painterly objects and sculptural works try to straddle two worlds—critiquing the superficiality of contemporary culture, while trying to imbed themselves into that very system. The tragic and continual beauty of youthful works is their unabashedly misguided arrogance. These works may suffer a de-fanging by being shown at the grown-up’s table of the Gagosian Gallery, but to judge Mr. Colen's odes to adolescence (the show is called "Poetry+" -- think "Basketball Diaries." Or "Blood and Guts in High School" -- too harshly or quickly would be to miss the boat. The reluctance to put away childish things may be a requirement of genius, and one of the pleasures of looking at art is to find a renewal of vision; to see the world from another point of view, no matter how dismal. - Bradley Rubenstein

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Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.

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