August 28, 2015
Gagosian Gallery NY
Vast Abstract Expressionist canvasses made with chewing gum and confetti, a skateboard half-pipe, a toppled row of Harley Davidsons, and a large brick wall fragment propped up by huge steel I-beams, move aside Damian Hirst, Dan Colen is the new bad boy of the downtown Chelsea art scene.
Predictably, the naysayers are out in droves with the usual outcries; disgust or at best polite dismissal. But Larry Gagosian has done it again! Master of ‘Art as Spectacle,’ he seems to have cornered the enfant terribles market, those still capable of shocking the gallery going public, just when most thought we are all shock-proof by now. Not that Colen’s outing here is really much of a shock, it’s more an adolescent prank writ large on Gagosian’s monstrous walls. Or is it? Well there is a strong stench of adolescence as you walk through the gallery. One can’t help compare the current art world to what used to be known as the rock world, a world of institutionalized adolescence. Now, much of the art world addresses the same issues of youth culture. Art stars are molded and hyped in the same way as rock musicians or I should say Hip Hop stars. Admittedly, the audience is much smaller but the analogy still holds.
The main buzz are the ‘paintings’. To an unsuspecting viewer they might look like one more tired round of AbEx painting. But no, wait. These are not just bad rehash Pollocks, they have the added twist that their stringy Pop colored skeins are actually chewing gum. There, how’s that for irony!
What does this say for Abstract Expressionism and the triumph of American painting? What does it say about Colen and his generation’s attitudes about art and life. Is it an homage to that most revered era of American art by way of gentle teasing? Is it a swipe at abstraction by Pop made by a third party?
Or is it a kind of dismissal of a generation’s accomplishment delivered with the arrogance of youth? Maybe it is all these things and more.
Of course there is a vast difference of intent between a Pollock, say his Number 31 of 1950 and Colen’s work. There is undoubtedly a sense of humor at play here that struggles just a little to overcome a self- congratulatory giggle at it’s own joke. Abstractions made out of gum, hilarious for a moment, nevertheless lapse quickly into weak one liners even a bad comic might think twice about before delivering to an audience already jaded by it all. A kinder take on these works might be that Colen is indeed posing serious questions about the demise of High Brow culture in an age of media overload and tabloid hype. Of course, this becomes hard to take when Colen is the direct beneficiary of the hype, to the tune of a rumored $300,000 price tag for a single canvas. Still, when given the benefit of the doubt, Colen seems to be asking: can we take these things seriously? Does painting mean anything to us anymore, never mind a Jackson Pollock? And if you want to stretch it further, do we have faith in art anymore? Can it lead to transcendence? Do we even care?
I can’t help thinking that Colen is directly challenging Hirst as a the pre-eminent commentator on Life and Death and everything in between, at least in the art world. Even his titles have the same epic, or long winded, if you prefer, contrived construction. Though Hirst is guity of excesses in the past I’d still give him the edge, at least for now, over Colen. Some parallels can be drawn between the two. Hirst has obvious debts to Bacon and Minimalism, especially Judd’s boxes, while Colen is drawing on AbEx, and in his photo realist work, Gerhard Richter. His candle paintings, although derived from Disney, call to mind Richter's beautiful renderings of the same.
Hirst has addressed deep issues with dark means. His meat and flies are much more disturbing than fallen motorcycles. Colen on the other hand attempts to face big issues about existence with a lighter touch.
There are of course precedents for Colen’s antics or perhaps we should call them strategies. Lichtenstein’s Pop comic book brushstrokes come to mind as do Larry River’s offerings in the form of diner menus and history paintings served up as gestural painting.
So what’s the big deal? Do these works leave a bad taste in the mouth of some viewers because they think this kid and his buddies chewed gum for days and then simply smeared the stuff all over pristine white fields with a middle finger prominently stuck up in the public’s face.
What irks folks most about Colen? Is it because he seems to be a brat, thumbing his nose at art and everything else? Is it because he seems to be just one more hyped up art star ‘challenging’ our assumptions about what art is or should be? There’s probably truth in both of these statements. Let’s face it, Mr. Colen is a product of a bubble gum culture. Is he a manufactured Pop idol like the Monkees or the Archies? Those shaking their heads in disbelief should be reminded that Last Train to Clarksville and I’m A Believer have at least become classics.
Is Pop culture the only game in town? We have a very uneasy relationship with how we live, our dependence on that way of life and our hypocrisy at critiquing it at the same time. It begs the question: if we are so critical of our lives why do we live the way we do. Do we get the culture we deserve?
Gagosian is the Disney of the art world. His gallery spaces are malls where people go to be entertained. It is this value of entertainment that is such an affront to many art lovers. Art as spectacle, art with mega production values cannot help but be compared to a Hollywood aesthetic.
As for the bubble gum, we all remember as kids when the bubble bursts it has a nasty habit of coming back in our face.