Bird Sh*t, Bubble Gum, and Crack Pipes: Dan Colen Reflects on his Decade-Long Career
In Red Hook, Brooklyn, in an enormous Civil War-era brick warehouse facing the New York Harbor, is the newest studio of artist Dan Colen. Originally built as storage for mariners coming into and out of the harbor, the buildings now house startups and artists. When the industrial gate of Colen’s studio goes up, light pours in, and the sweet odor of paint and turpentine can be whiffed from the walkway leading to the studio’s door. Enter and you’ll find a scene that captures the last decade or so of Colen’s career, starting from the early 2000s, when the trifecta of Colen, photographer Ryan McGinley, and fellow artist Dash Snow ignited the art world’s interest. Colen and Snow became famous (and infamous) for running amuck in a social experiment-meets-art installation they called “Nests,” drinking and taking drugs and shredding everything at hand, in locations from the posh Mayfair Hotel in London to Jeffrey Deitch’s SoHo gallery. But as of late, Colen has changed—perhaps you can say he’s grown up—and his career has shifted from the provocative stunts of an emerging artist in the spotlight to an established name who, from his three studios, produces works fetching prices in the six figures. Colen and McGinley, and friends in their circle, have all made this rite of passage—sobered by the unfortunate loss of Snow to a heroin overdose in 2009. And while life moves on for Colen, a newly opened survey show, titled “Help!,” at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center, founded by mega-collector Peter Brant, takes the artist back on a reflection of this past decade, a journey he’s embracing. In my visit with Colen, we dove into the significance of this survey show, touching on everything from Disney’s Bambi and a curtain of bodega-bought crack stems, to his relationship with Brant.
Marina Cashdan: Your studio is incredibly active, brimming with works that are either complete or in-process. Is this a particularly active time or do you typically produce work in such a prolific way?
Dan Colen: I do always work on multiple bodies simultaneously, but this is a new studio space, and because of the scale it allows me to work in different ways than I have been able to in my old studios. I can spread out more here, and instead of things piling on top of each other I'm able to devote entire areas to individual projects. It's much nicer like this. I get to watch all the work develop in close proximity, which allows discoveries in one body of work to influence another kind of work. The most significant thing this studio allows me to do is to keep finished pieces around longer, to hang them in a clean space and spend much more time with them.
MC: Is it safe to say that your show at the Brant Foundation “Help!” is a reflection on the journey of the last decade of your career?
DC: Yeah. The work dates from 2003 to the present. It really is the first opportunity I've been given to articulate the underlying spirit of my work over the last decade. It also just so happens that there is a new body of paintings in the show that are about a journey—I guess my journey. I've used one as the show poster, which is a painting of a crashing wave with a message in a bottler. Other paintings are of trails in a forest or one is of a cobblestone street crossroads and other scenes like that.
MC: In 2004, you made Secrets and Cymbals, Smoke and Scissors (My Friend Dash’s Wall in the Future), a replica of Dash Snow’s former East Village apartment wall, including detritus such as show announcements, baseball cards, crumpled-up covers of the New York Post, school photos. This work makes a reappearance in “Help!” How does this work influence other works in the show, if at all?
DC: I wouldn't say replica, it was my own trompe l’oeil painted version of Dash’s wall. The wall was my first sculpture. It was the simplest way I could imagine working in three dimensions at that time. But it worked as an amazing stepping stone. The wall led me directly to the boulder sculptures, which share a room with the wall at the Brant Foundation. They are both about places we congregated, places we shared our ideas and beliefs, places that I imagine absorbed the spirits of our youthful ambitions and resistances. This is maybe more coincidence, but before I decided to make Dash’s wall into a sculpture, I considered painting it into a landscape painting. I had imagined a series of these landscape paintings all with these “holy” objects set within them. I completely abandoned that series and started working on the sculptures, but this new series of paintings I just mentioned are the first landscape paintings I’ve ever done. It’s funny coming back to that idea 10 years later; you really think about your past. My relationship with Dash is really central to the show. It developed pretty organically, but he just kept coming up when reflecting back over the last ten years. I made an outdoor sculpture called At Least They Died Together—the title comes from a collage Dash gave me. And we are showing a video work of Dash’s from 2005 that depicts the two of us and a third friend hanging in a hotel room where we had made a hamster nest.
MC: Where did these new landscape paintings come from?
DC: The images are all from Disney, mostly from Bambi. Although they’re kind of about Bambi, they’re also about maturation and life cycles, and being lost. Sometimes I can’t tell if I am trying to be as honest as possible in the work or if I am deliberately muddying the waters with fantasy—both for myself and for the audience. I think that's why I am drawn to these Disney animation ‘backdrops’—they are so beautiful, sometimes sad, either way there are big pieces of the plot missing from them.
MC: That lofty gallery seems like a daring place to show smaller-scale landscapes. Will there be other works in the room?
DC: I was worried that they might not hold the space, but it worked out. The other works in the room balance the scale of the paintings nicely. There is a “beaded curtain” made up of 150,000 crack pipes, which is a collaboration with Nate Lowman from 2008 that’s been remade on a much larger scale for Brant. It crosses the whole width of the building from floor to ceiling. You have to walk through it to enter the room with the landscape paintings. In the center of the room is a very large pile (approximately 30 feet-by 20 feet-by 15 feet) of bent and twisted scrap metal mixed in with all sorts of other junk—refrigerators, T-shirts, a lantern, lots of fencing, I think there's a Bart Simpson blow up doll somewhere in there. There's a group of 23 canaries that live in, on, and around the pile. Scale shifts in so many ways it that room. That the paintings end up being a really great pace to slow down and concentrate on something.
MC: Going back to Secrets and Cymbals, what is it like revisiting a work from 2004? Looking back at that work, did anything feel clearer about the journey?
DC: I worked on that piece on and off for many years. I think I last saw it in 2007. So this was the first time seeing it since Dash died. You get to thinking about how all art objects relate to time and space. That piece will always be tied closely to one time and one place—even just the newspaper headlines about Saddam Hussein take you through this portal into a different New York and a different mindset. Now, standing in front of it, it’s more like a memorial, not only to Dash, but to a whole way of thinking and being. You don’t get any of that from looking at a picture of the sculpture—you have to stand in the room with it. Once you see the brushstrokes on it, all the little handmade sculptural elements, you feel the real weight of all those ideas.
MC: You've said that you began the Confetti paintings shortly after Dash Snow passed away as well. Do those paintings relate to the sculpture at all?
DC: Yeah, the first confetti paintings in the series were called “Moments Like This Never Last,” which is from Dash. And the confetti series relates to the frenzy of the hamster nests and to that wildness and spirit of youth, chasing that brief moment of ecstasy. Everything I do, whether it's an oil painting, a painting made with a less traditional material, a sculpture, a film or performance—whatever it is comes back to my exploration of the artist's mark, that moment when the art locks into place, when you pin the tail on the donkey, even if it’s just for a second. The potential power in a single brush stroke, maybe the potential impotence of it as well. You see this exploration pretty explicitly throughout the show, obviously in the confetti paintings, which are literally just a series of colored marks on a white-ish canvas. But also in the first room you have all the layered marks of bubblegum and bird shit, then you walk through the crack pipe curtain. Each crack pipe comes with a silk flower inside, so the curtain turns into these dots of floating colors. Then there are the different colored canaries floating around the large room. It always comes back to these little marks, small moments.
MC: In a 2011 interview with Harmony Korine, you said, “I like to kick a ball and see where it lands rather than predicting what direction it’s going to go in. I don’t even really like to aim. Things develop in much more interesting ways than our imaginations can dream up.” Is that still the case or do you have a plan for what’s next?
DC: That philosophy becomes more and more central to my practice—although sometimes it is really important to aim or have an ambition—but for me to not be rigid is most important. I only have so much influence over the exact way the work develops. So much is out of my control, and so much of the art is created in those moments where control is surrendered. It’s important I stay sensitive to my process, to my materials and even to the fact that most of my content is bigger than I understand … I don't think art is a man-made thing; I think it happens around me, around us. But maybe if I stay sensitive, once in a while I can capture it.
MC: This exhibition is taking place at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut, which was founded by collector and philanthropist Peter Brant—who is one of your big collectors. Sometimes an artist doesn’t have a personal relationship with his collector; sometimes they’re very close. What’s your relationship with Brant like? And how did this show become realized?
DC: This show has been a long time coming, and our relationship has kind of developed in that time. It’s an unusual show, for sure, because there’s no curator … but there’s this guy with a lot of ideas. [Laughs]. It’s been much more collaborative than how I work with my galleries. But his basic attitude is that "at the end of the day, all the decisions will be yours. And I’m going to share with you how I feel along the way, and hopefully you can benefit from opinions." There’s the assumption that he obviously believes in what you do all on your own, or else he wouldn’t be as committed to the work. You know what I mean? He’s really interactive, and he’s really sensitive to the work. And he’s been collecting for longer than most people. And he’s known so many artists and so much history, and has been influenced by so many artists in his relationships with them and his proximity to them. And you feel that. He really helped me shape the show. The show is definitely stronger because of his participation. He was literally in the space with me everyday. He knew when I needed space, and he knew when I needed help.
MC: Which brings me to my final question: Why did you title the show “Help!”?
DC: [Sighs lightly]. Well, I mean...I guess it’s like, how do you title these things? [Laughs]. Really, I don’t know. But with a regular show I do feel really comfortable with titling, and I have more explainable reasons. But I’ve never really done anything like this. So basically "help" came about because the image that I’m using as an invite for the show is a painting that’s in the show, of a message in a bottle. So it’s a bottle in an ocean, and the message in the bottle says, “Help.” But it seemed like a bad idea—I thought through it for a long time. And I guess it just stuck because of the collaborative work in the show, all the influence of my friends in the show, and because of these thoughts that I’ve shared in this interview with you. It’s like there’s so much that comes from outside of me that makes the work, whether it’s of this world or it comes out of the ether.