Lévy Gorvy debuts new paintings and sculpture by Dan Colen in the artist’s inaugural exhibition at the gallery. Dan Colen: Mailorder Mother Purgatory presents three recent bodies of works that focus on technical innovation in pursuit of ambience and emotional depth.
A leading figure of his generation, Colen pursues an art deeply rooted in the history of painting. Having engaged in long periods of material experimentation, employingsubstances from chewing gum, flowers, dirt, and grass, to confetti, and tar and feathers, he has gradually deconstructed the essence of the brushstroke and the gestural mark of the artist’s hand. His spirited and fertile style of tromp l’oeil techniques and tongue-in-cheek humor deliver a decidedly contemporary interpretation to the recognized canon. However, it is also through this lens that Colen mines and questions established historical styles: Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptualism. Challenging the heritage of his medium through an innovative approach to materiality, technique, and content, Colen pushes the boundaries of painting while imbuing his work with formal rigor and art historical richness.
Dan Colen: Mailorder Mother Purgatory spans three floors of Lévy Gorvy’s flagship gallery in New York.
The exhibition opens on the ground floor with new paintings from Colen’s Mailorder series (2015–2018) of lush oil-on-linen screen prints, which depict images of clothing from mail-order catalogues, enlarged to a monumental scale. Here the artist harnesses the power of seduction and subversive marketing to consider relationships between fundamentals of art: commodity, originality, and artistic production. Colen’s unique approach to surface, ideas of layering, transference, and accumulation coalesce and converge in the complex process of printing and making these works. He creates tension between presence and absence, emphasizing the dichotomy through his choice of disembodied subjects. Colen examines the relationship between the physicality of the canvas’s weave and the graphic qualities of the printed dot. By appropriating advertisements that are clipped from his everyday life, the artist transforms cheap commercial prints into velvety, saturated silkscreens through which blurred forms and tonal subtleties are elevated to technical studies of color, line, shadow, and light. Informed by the artist’s love of Mark Rothko’s color fields and the painterly techniques of predecessors such as Barnett Newman, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, and Georgia O’Keefe, Colen’s Mailorder paintings emerge from a laborious process of application and control. Between the softness of colorful sweaters and the hard edges of corduroy jeans, illusionistic fields of pigments emerge between the creases and the folds to reveal a sublime rendering of our contemporary commercial landscape and its alluring, magnetic pull.
On the gallery’s second and third floors, Colen’s new Mother and Purgatory paintings further extend the artist’s longstanding interest in the sentimental tenderness of mid-20th century hand-drawn animation. Here, three new large-scale oil paintings from the series Mother (2017–2018) are presented in conjunction with a painted steel sculpture of a female nude. Mindful of popular culture’s power to express the fleeting moments of human experience, Colen draws upon animated stills from Disney classics to expose the fragility and wrought psychological terrain of our collective imagination. The narrative of the Disney film Bambi (1942) arouses the emotions reverberating throughout Colen’s present body of work: sentiments of abandonment, emptiness, searching, and loss transcend his cool palette of blues and barren branches that sway hauntingly in the air. Here, the mother figure is personified in landscape, creating tension between the foreground and background of the picture plane; a looming sky and shivering charcoal bark on forlorn autumn trees are startling and harsh. Suggesting temporal themes of birth, life, love, and death, these works find impact in the weight of a mournful fawn’s experience.
Paired in dialogue with the Mother paintings, a new sculpture (2017–2018), portrays the physical representation of a woman. Arrayed in the center of the gallery floor, her arms reach skyward, echoing the figuration of Colen’s dead trees. Lying upon her back, she twists in the pose figura serpentinata (a stance termed in Italian painting and sculpture to elicit dynamism in the figure): spiraled on its central axis, her lower body pushes in one direction while her torso turns the opposite way. Her hands hold a woodland creature — a rabbit’s neck is in her grip, its feet rest upon her chest. Painted in the technique of chiaroscuro, her intense but tender gaze is inspired by historical depictions, drawing influence from Caravaggio, Gustave Courbet’s ‘Woman with a Parrot’ (1866), and the iconography of medieval Madonna and Child.
On the third floor, Colen’s investigation of painterly gestures and his ongoing navigation between abstraction and representation culminate in the Purgatory paintings. Four new canvases in vivid magenta hues display the artist’s love of surface and pure pleasure in layering colors. Mining classic styles of American animation and fusing them with the atmospheric effects of J.M.W. Tuner and John Constable’s studies of clouds, Colen’s cloudscapes, rendered with a surreal palette, artificial depth, and cartoonish sense of form, achieve resounding contemporaneity while conjuring historical references that range from 19th century Romanticism and the Hudson River School to the religiously loaded semiotic legacy of the cloud in Renaissance and Baroque painting. Colen builds up thin, translucent glazes in oil through a process that is slow and searching. Painstakingly crafted and layered, each canvas is sprayed, stained, or hand-painted over a period of months to create a smooth surface that both preserves a satisfying materiality and exhibits a depth of pigment that is at once ethereal, resonant, and full.
In his handling of paint Colen collapses the legibility of his subjects, denying conventions of pictorial space, and conflating the phenomenal and the real. The visual density and aura of color that he creates is suspended on the canvas in a middle ground that is void of three-point-perspective, enigmatically evoking the surge and dissolution of nature’s overwhelming force. Trapped in a realm beyond conventional space and time, the vaporescent forms of Colen’s Purgatory paintings suggest a connection to feelings hidden beneath his amorphous, seemingly abstract surfaces. Built up steadily through surface, the emotional reverence of Colen’s compositions is encapsulated in his diffusion of paint. To the greater discourse of painting, Cohen offers new interpretations in the genre of landscape and the search for something spiritual and sublime in the mix of contemporary life.
About the Artist
Dan Colen was born in 1979 in Leonia, New Jersey. He received his B.F.A. in 2001 from the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. His work is held in various public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; and the de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space, Miami. Recent solo exhibitions include Help! at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center, Connecticut (2014); The L…o…n…g Count at the Walter De Maria Building, New York (2014); Psychic Slayer at the Herning Museum of Contemporary Art, Denmark (2015); Shake the Elbow at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (2015); Oil Painting at the Dallas Contemporary (2016); and Sweet Liberty at Newport Street Gallery, London (2017). Colen’s work will be the subject of an exhibition at the Astrup Fearnley, Oslo in May 2018 and Asia in 2019.
Dan Colen currently lives and works in New York.