Greg Colson, "Leading British Phobias" (2011), acrylic and pencil on wood and hardboard panels, 47 inches diameter (all images courtesy the artist)

Greg Colson belongs to that unenviable group of artists who are considered unclassifiable, and because of that are often overlooked. This status is deeply ironic because of his long interest in systems and categories. He understands that for all of its claims of democracy, the United States (like most of the world) finds ways to maintain certain hierarchies. A painter and sculptor who makes what Donald Judd called “specific objects” out of found materials, he has long been preoccupied with the ways society visually defines and organizes reality. He has made street maps out of strips of discarded wood and used a green tennis ball to represent a planet in our solar system. He has drawn and painted pie charts that measure and name the shared components of our latest collective anxiety. 

In each body of work Colson has done over the course of a career that dates back to 1987, when he began showing in Los Angeles, he has brought together a penchant for exactness with a sensitivity to detritus and waste. By being meticulous in his interaction with abandoned things, Colson infuses the act of care and attention with pathos. I remember thinking that his works registered a conflict between wanting to scream and finding ways to keep his grief under control; and that they were acts of mourning in a country whose citizens are often numb to public expressions of feeling, where mass murder is a routine occurrence, like traffic lights blinking at the center of a small town. What I admire about him is that — sensing how hopeless our current situation might actually be — he still refuses to offer viewers a visual distraction or placebo.

His current solo exhibition, Greg Colson: Snap Shot at the National Arts Club (January 7–January 28, 2022) — his first in many years in New York — includes eight works: five circular “Pie Charts” painted on cut sections of wood and three studies on paper. Although the works on paper might be studies for paintings, I don’t think of them as preliminary. There is something complete about them. The circle seems particularly appropriate as a support because it suggests that we are going in circles and getting nowhere, while the fact that they are composed of sections that fit together conveys that some change is possible. 

As the titles indicate, the subjects include reasons for “Unfriending” (2011), “Top Concerns of Midterm Voters (study)” (2022), and “Leading British Phobias” (2011). This sampling proposes that your opinion about anything seems to matter to someone. Dating between 1998 and 2022, the works communicate the ubiquitous role pie charts (or surveys) play in our lives. “Purse Essentials (Study)” (2022) refers to a survey on what people consider essential objects to be contained in a purse. According to Colson’s chart, lip balm, gum/mints, cellphone, pain reliever, hairbrush, tissues, ATM card, cash, and credit cards are considered indispensable. “Other items women specify as the most essential to carry in their purse” are “sunglasses, tampons, and condoms.” 

Greg Colson, “Top Concerns of Midterm Voters (study)” (2022), enamel, acrylic, pencil, ink, collage, and tape on paper, 14 inches x 11 inches

Viewers might wonder about the purpose of this survey, which Colson was smart to omit. Was it for marketing, surveillance, or something more nefarious? And what do we learn from it? How do we line up with the different sections? Are all purse owners predictably the same? Do those who don’t fit in count at all? For all their apparent inclusivity, pie charts are really ways to cull the populace and exclude those who do not contribute to the survey, similar to the art world’s use of, as well as reliance on, surveys. I had never thought of pie charts as a way of defining a club until now.

Rendered in a straightforward, documentary style, complete with graphic signs and changing typefaces, Colson’s pie charts can be funny, perverse, and unsettling, all while inducing alternating waves of laughter and despair. Looking at “Leading British Phobias” (2011), viewers learn that a large percentage of the British populace has a phobia about “spiders,” “clowns,” and “needles.” Among the other fears cited, Colson lists “dentistry, driving, and heights.” Taken together, these sound like the key ingredients to an Alfred Hitchcock film. 

Whenever I look at one of Colson’s pie charts, I feel like I learn something and nothing at the same time, and I don’t feel assuaged when I should. That’s why I find them fascinating. They point to a curiosity that cannot be satisfied. According to the painting “America’s Biggest Problem” (1998), a significant number of participants identify “crime,” lack of morals,” “national debt,” “politicians,” “drugs,” “homelessness,” “economy,” “schools,” and “environment.” Who decided the categories? What would be different if the survey was held today? What do the pie charts tell us about ourselves? Will they provoke us to change our behavior? One of the underlying effects of Colson’s “Pie Chart” paintings is that he prompts viewers to think about the responses and what theirs might be.

Colson’s droll paintings present the pie chart as a useful monitor of a group’s behavior, while also revealing it to be exclusionary and superficial, a way of underscoring differences of opinion while cancelling the importance of divergence. The individual is regarded only as part of a larger group, suggesting that “individualism” is an obsolete model, and maybe nothing more than a quaint idea. Andy Warhol famously declared that the meaning was all in the surface of his work, and that “There’s nothing behind it.” He wanted badly to belong. Greg Colson suggests that we don’t want to know what’s teeming in our psyche, both collectively and individually. He has never focused on belonging. 

Greg Colson, “Unfriending” (2011), acrylic and pencil on wood and hardboard panels, 47 inches diameter
Greg Colson, “Sustainable Apparel (study)” (2012), enamel, oil, acrylic, pencil, ink, collage, and tape on paper, 14 inches x 11 inches

Greg Colson: Snap Shot continues at the National Arts Club (15 Gramercy Park South, Gramercy Park, Manhattan) through January 28. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...