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Dan Colen: Sweet Liberty

7 November 2017 Oskar Oprey

A giant American flag (mammoth in size, clinging to its mangled pole and the chunk of concrete that once secured it to the ground) lies crumpled and battle scarred in Vauxhall’s Newport Street Gallery. It’s as if the Cloverfield Monster ripped it up from the ground and tossed the whole lot over the Atlantic. Entitled “The Big Kahuna”, this is actually a major new artwork by NY artist Dan Colen, and opens his show Sweet Liberty, currently running until early 2018.

“I started making it in 2009”, said Colen, in a recent video interview filmed in the gallery, “in 2017 it just comes with so much more weight.” It sure does. Anyone following American current affairs will be aware of how touchy a subject the American flag can be. We wonder what President Trump would make of the piece - his daughter Ivanka collects Colen’s work - after he took to Twitter last month to denounce protesting NFL players for “disrespecting our Anthem, Flag and Country.” The power of the work, aside from its sheer size, is its ability to latch onto America trauma, whether it be a post 9/11 landscape or the current racial tensions in Charlottesville. As Colen points out, “There’s something about the flag being this hopeful icon, it’s something that can get beat up and come back around and has cycles”.

Colen himself seems to have become a bit of an American icon himself, rising to fame in the late 2000’s, along with a group of friends including Ryan McGinley and the late Dash Snow, who were dubbed ‘Warhol’s Children’ by the press. McGinley’s photographs document Colen drunk and naked and getting up to mischief, whilst Snow collaborated with him on a series of legendary ‘nests’, which involved the two holing up in various hotel rooms across the globe, and shredding any paper they could find until the space resembled a giant hamster cage.

Sweet Liberty acts as a kind of mid-career retrospective, although as with any show at Newport Street, nearly all of the work hails from Damien Hirst’s own private collection. Rooms are filled with Colen’s monumental trash paintings, compromising pieces of garbage scavenged from the streets of New York: flip flops, old bottles and rags, there’s even what looks like a potted plant jutting out from the top of one. Whoopee cushions have been cast in coloured glass and scattered around the upper floor, the school-boy prank turned into something a little more sinister – sit on one of these and you’ll be spending the evening at St Thomas’s hospital or facing the wrath of a very angry gallery attendant.


Photography by Prudence Cumings Associates. © Dan Colen and Victor Mara

Two of the best pieces are from his chewing gum series. Gone are the paintbrushes and tubes of acrylic typical to an artists trade, and out comes the chewing gum, lots and lots of chewing gum, in all shapes and sizes, flavours and colours. The gum is smeared and dolloped and stretched across the canvas, a delinquent’s homage to Jackson Pollock and that rare case of an artwork that you really want to stick in your gob.

There’s a slick, playful, post-pop mayhem running throughout the show, or should we say smashing through the walls, as the sculpture - or is it a performance, or a sculpture of a performance? - Livin and Dying literally does. Roger Rabbit, Wile E. Coyote, the Kool-Aid Man and a butt-naked Colen have run rampant throughout the galleries, crashing through each room, leaving a perfectly cut silhouetted hole in each wall, exposing the bricks and mortar of the building and no doubt leaving every visitor wondering how the effect was achieved, and at what cost?  The culprits lay exhausted and dazed in the final gallery; who could blame them, after smashing through all that concrete? Colen, rendered perfectly in wax and leaving nothing to the imagination, looks like a 3-D print of one of McGinley’s photographs. For all its effort and ambition, there is a lack of debris scattered around all those holes – surely it would have been a bit messier? Thankfully, the pair of animatronic dancing shoes that end the show are pretty grubby - Charlie Chaplin for the slacker generation. We won’t give away the exact location, as it spoils the surprise – just remember to look up!


Photography by Prudence Cumings Associates. © Dan Colen and Victor Mara

Dan Colen: Sweet Liberty is at the Newport Street Gallery until 21 January 2018.
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