The spirits that I called at Oko is Dan Colen’s first solo exhibition in New York City since his disastrous Gagosian show in 2010.
That episode, you may recall, inspired Paddy Johnson of Art F City to declare:
The art world’s most boring story this month is about how everyone hates Dan Colen. How his show at Gagosian sucks (it does); how his story is one of excess (both personal and professional: how he’s a reformed drug addict and his work is expensive); and how everyone begrudges having to talk about him because we all know the work isn’t worth it.
I didn’t see that particular show, titled Poetry (September 10 – October 16, 2010), which featured four paintings, a row of thirteen toppled-over motorcycles, a brick wall and an upside-down half-pipe; in fact, the only work of Colen’s I’d come across in the flesh was one of his chewing gum paintings, which I rather liked.
Two out of the four paintings in the Gagosian show were made of chewing gum. In her somewhat more temperate review in the New York Times, Roberta Smith singled them out for faint praise:
In these two paintings the juvenile nastiness that informs everything here at least achieves visual liftoff. It’s not much but it’s something.
Of the remaining two paintings, one is described as “a spare field of bright dots and squiggles […] based on photographs of confetti in action” while the other depicted “an expanse of empty wine bottles in a Disneyesque style — skillful banality.”
Disney is the touchstone for the two not-so-large (relative to the 17-footers at Gagosian) oil paintings Colen has on display at Oko. Each is simplicity itself: an arc of pigment swooshing off into a dark field of deep space. According to the press release, these works, which the artist refers to as “the Miracle paintings,” are “inspired in part by Walt Disney’s celebrated 1940 animated film classic Fantasia.”
The arc that climbs from the right to the left of each painting is “achieved through suspension of dry pigments in viscous paint and varnish.” The field appears to have been poured on — not a brushstroke in sight — which results in an unfathomable sheen beset by a distant, aurora-like glow.
Looking at these works, I thought of Ross Bleckner’s paintings from the late 1980s, which similarly featured bright highlights and dark, deep-set grounds. Shimmering like moon gardens or fireflies, Bleckner’s pictures may have been sentimental, but his subject was AIDS, which at least anchored them to some aspect of reality.
The press release goes on to state that the works are inspired by the painted backgrounds over which animation cels are laid:
His paintings at Oko ask us to open ourselves to parallel realities by focusing upon visual experiences that usually are rendered transparent by our intuitive attraction to foreground action.
Designated as “TBT (to be titled)” and made in 2013, these works were also inspired by English Fairy Painting, that exquisitely weird mid-19th-century offshoot of reactionary British art. To underscore the point, Colen has included a third painting in the show, “Titania and Bottom: A Scene from a Midsummer-Night’s Dream,” (ca.1848-1851) by John Anster Fitzgerald (ca.1819-1906).
The picture portrays the ass-headed Bottom and Titania, Queen of the Fairies, surrounded by her winged retinue; as if the image weren’t fantastical enough, the canvas is presented in a flamboyantly rustic frame made from loops of gold-painted, interlacing twigs.
Colen relates Fitzgerald and his fellow Fairy Painters (Richard Dadd, 1817-1886, was the most prominent) to “a strain of contemporary pop culture that,” according to the press release, “insists upon escapism and drug-fueled fantasy.”
There’s no question that Colen’s paintings are well made — the density of the pigment in the multi-colored arcs recalls the satisfying materiality of the chewing gum compositions, and the glassy fields are a cosmic soup of subtly shifting tones.
But would we give them a second look if we passed them in the lobby of an Orlando resort hotel? Maybe, given the sophisticated contrast between the encrusted positive shapes and the nearly liquid negative space. The care with which the works are made, however, doesn’t offer any clues about whether Colen is sending up kitsch or indulging in it.
From the text associated with the show, you would think that he’s playing it straight, and so I’ll allow that presumption, which in fact makes the show more interesting. Irony eats its own tail, ultimately becoming only about itself. A direct approach allows more into the mix.
And if “escapism and drug-fueled fantasy” are the main ingredients, the key sentence of the press release would be:
His canvases appear as hyper-real snapshots of the fantastic, tableaux that deploy paint not to reiterate what the eye sees but to ignite fantasies of what we would find if we could rupture the screen of representation and gain access to the magical.
Why does “the magical” feel inappropriate to a discussion of contemporary art? Writing about the work of artists such as Adrián Villar Rojas or Joan Banach, I’ve noted that the genres of science fiction and fantasy ought to warrant as much serious attention in visual art as they have in literature, film, theater, dance and music.
Escapism and magic, however, are qualitatively different, offering ephemeral pleasures instead of imaginative excavations. They depend on a predictable set of conventions if they are to work. You can’t indulge in escapism, for example, if the thriller you’re watching takes a freakily original turn.
Accordingly, Colen’s swooshes are predigested signs of magic, sweetened and drained of the terror that the truly unexplainable can provoke. They may seek to “rupture the screen of representation and gain access to the magical,” but instead they flame out as quickly as the meteorites orchestrated by Mickey Mouse in his Sorcerer’s Apprentice getup.
The presence of John Anster Fitzgerald signals the show’s essential conservatism — both he and Colen rely on readily understandable imagery to charm rather than challenge. Colen’s “Miracle paintings,” based on recycled tropes, don’t travel enough critical distance from their source either to reorient our experience of animation cel backgrounds or to draw fresh vitality from the varied strains of pop culture. Instead of opening up the everyday to the miraculous, they tell us what we already know.
Dan Colen: The spirits that I called continues at Oko (220 E 10th Street, East Village, Manhattan) through June 15.