Dan Colen's exhibition at Gagosian has been called all sorts of names, making his show the finest example of a new tone currently captivating New York. His show entitled "Poetry" features large-scale paintings made from chewing gum, a row of tipped over motorcyles, a skate ramp and various other objects that seem to be designed to infuriate the art intelligentsia. As much as I'm ready to launch into yet another negative view of this exhibition, I feel that certain issues have not yet been fully explored.
Whether Mr. Colen's plan was to annoy is not clear, and this aspect of not knowing is an issue. What we do know is that the reaction to his exhibition has not been favorable. Walking around the exhibition, I was impressed with the extreme passive aggressiveness of Colen's statement. His willingness to embrace a "fuck you" aesthetic at all costs was a high level moment for me that quickly faded. When asked about this exhibition, most people either scowl or sneer, knowing that it's all just a big fake out. It feels like a set-up, like we are supposed to garner a reaction to this exhibition based on what? Do we really think that Colen set out to create a giant schlocky show and have everyone laugh at it? This exhibition is a test of New York's conceptual sophistication on one level, and a test of New York's tolerance on another.
If Mr. Colen has found success on any level with this exhibition, then it's in the speedy realm of the here and now. He seems to be doing what he wants how he wants, and it's in our faces. Why make abstractions using chewing gum? Why not just use paint? This elaborate ironic statement is not sitting well with most people. An aspect of all art is questioned by the critics, questioned by the artists and questioned by the public. Historically, the best artists have always introduced us to shockingly new creations. Is Dan Colen's show intentionally trying to manipulate our sense of outrage only to use this outrage as a justification for a critical discourse? Or is he genuine with his intentions? Personally, I'm okay with being lied to as long as that lie has real intentions within the lie.
It seems like we all need to feel as though an artist is telling us the truth. What gets under our skin about this exhibition is that we feel like a joke is being played on the viewer. Personally I'm okay with the artist as "trickster," but in this case the trickster-aspect manifests itself more in the area of the passive aggressive. Colen's show is wildly passive aggressive and that's not bad; it's just a darker statement than most can feel comfortable with. All in all, the show seems random but it's so overtly random that an equilibrium is set. New York has certain expectations of it's artists, and this show seems to stretch those expectations to the limit. If this is the new great art or not remains to be seen. But it is a highly formed conceptual statement.
Damien Hirst's show of paintings at Gagosian was an example of a feeling of being lied to. His medical paintings done by assistants were far more offensive than Colen's outing. I'm still a Hirst fan and find his work brilliant for the most part. I'm also still a fan of Dan Colen and view him as one of the most promising artists of his generation. On a certain level, it's comforting to think that an artist like Colen might be making his own work, or in this case tipping his own motorcycles. Before we overreact to Dan Colen's show, we should examine the history of artists who work with this kind of aesthetic. It's a series of ideas, much like poetry, and I don't need genius execution or overtly derivative ideas to understand this exhibition on a conceptual level.
For example, Matthew Day Jackson's recent exhibition is exceptionally derivative of artists such as Lousie Nevelson, Damien Hirst and Richard Prince. In a certain extreme way I found Colen at Gagosian to be a refreshingly original show. In addition none of the critics have tackled the subject of whether Mr. Colen is in fact making a high-level conceptual statement or not? I'm a person who prefers handwork in art as opposed to anti-craft but can understand both fully. This is not the best conceptual work. But at least it's not rehash. This show also left me wondering why it wasn't mounted in Europe, as it feels like a bit of a grand European-style show for a New York audience.