Dan Colen

Dan Colen Interview – By Steven Cox

The Illusion of Life, Dan Colen’s first and most recent solo exhibition within the UK, showcased an oeuvre of new works that explored the artist’s fascination of capturing fleeting moments through the intangible and invisible language of art. A spinning coke bottle, dancing Edwardian shoes, a levitating ghost dustsheet, noiseless whoopee cushions and hovering Mickey Mouse gloved hands were some of the animated sculptural works that floated between the realms of the fictional, magical and mysterious. Colen stated, “the actual art is invisible…it hovers between the object and the audience,” which is particularly true in the case of Colen’s flower paintings which subconsciously transported the audience to the outdoor floral environment of the Royal Botanic Gardens through the delicate floral scent of his works surfaces.

Catching up post-exhibition, Steven Cox of HUNTED PROJECTS In Dialogue discussed with Dan Colen, The Illusion of Life, held at Inverleith House in Edinburgh. 

Steven Cox: The Illusion of Life features several of your large-scale flower paintings that suitably relate to the botanic gardens that surround Inverleith House.  I find that the artificially dyed, over saturated appearance of the flowers own a hyper real Technicolor quality that simultaneously relates to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite in Fantasia which features plant life being magically awoken to celebrate and dance in advance of the forthcoming change of season.

By examining the titles of these hyper-real works, they could be interpreted as ironically autobiographical for you reference punk/metal songs by both Black Flag and Slayer: Life of Pain, My War, Silent Scream, Sex. Murder and Die by the Sword.  To what extent do these flower paintings act as a commentary of personal times both past and gone?

Dan Colen: I love the thought of the plants dancing in Fantasia in relation to these paintings! I’ve been working on a new series of oil paintings for the last two years that are based off of stills from Fantasia, they must have rubbed off on these flower paintings, but dance, movement and gesture were definitely something I was striving to communicate in these flower paintings. In terms of the titles, I think of them as autobiographical for sure. Cliché can be used just for comedy, but you can exploit real potential in a cliché if you have an active and sincere relationship to it.  So maybe, juxtaposed with the content of the paintings, the titles seem ironic at first, but I hope the paintings and their titles also draw some additional truth out of each other. I hope that feelings, intentions or themes don’t pop up without the presence of their antitheses. I appreciate you bringing up the titles - they are important parts of these works.

SC: You stated that you were looking for an ideal venue for a while to show your flower paintings, for past versions of these works: Suicide Machine, Sick Sex Six, Eviction Party and Weekend Millionaire (all created in 2010) were exhibited within the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, Norway, 2011, and Zero For Conduct within In Living Color at FLAG Art Foundation in 2012. I am interested to know if your interpretation of these works has shifted by exhibiting them within an environment that specifically explores botany?

DC: I wouldn’t say that my interpretation has changed, but the environment has definitely allowed me to create a much more complex show, which I think exploits some of the subtler themes in the paintings. If I hadn’t made the flower show for Inverleith, I’m not sure I ever would have come around to making any of the sculptures for the show. I think the gardens and the building itself helped isolate for me how much these paintings are about ghosts. I was thinking about isolating senses - feelings without a body in mind, sounds, smells, and touches, the sound of dancing shoes or bodiless tears falling into an empty guitar case, a spinning bottle, a zombie clown, and a chair with no one in it, and a ghost of a couch. I think the physicality and life of the gardens focused me on the ghosts of the dead flowers. The paintings began after the death of my close friend Dash Snow, I’m not sure if I could have investigated that in a place that did not have the same dizzying overwhelming sense of actual life that these gardens have.

SC: You have made a departure from using oil paint in a traditional sense, for you evolved from painting photo-realist images of Gepettos’s work bench to turning paint into the appearance of excrement within your Birdshit series. By repurposing somewhat everyday materials, you subvert their signification by making the materials not just the medium, but also the decision maker of how the works evolve and form. Can you discuss the processes and obstacles you encountered whilst working on the flower paintings?

DC: I couldn’t have said it better myself, and it really is most important with the material paintings I make to let the materials be a bigger part of the work than just the medium, they make decisions and they help focus ideas and themes within the work. The flowers are the subtlest material I’ve tried to make paintings with. I started making them in 2010, since then they’ve gone through many stages. Trying to make use of the flowers’ potential is not easy and has an infinite amount of possibilities. The most consistent challenge though is trying to make sure the mark has taken whatever form it takes because of the qualities of the flower itself as opposed to being a result of my own weight that I apply to it. This is especially complicated considering that over time the process of making the flower paintings has become more and more aggressive and more and more violent.

SC: A transition seems to have occurred over the years in the making of your flower paintings, for the past works seem more speckled or perhaps minimal, whilst the most recent versions seem more visually energized and complex.  Has your process in creating these works become more expressionistic?

DC: As I mentioned, the process has evolved over the years. We make the paintings in a much wilder way than we did in the beginning. Both flowers and canvas are flying around as we go through our repertoire of touches, some very very heavy others light as a feather. I’m much more interested in creating "moments" now. I want the paintings to feel like something just happened, like there was just an explosion or a burst of power. I’m trying to create space in a much more convincing way. I want the viewer to feel like they can leap into the paintings, and although the picture created by the flowers is essentially abstract, I want the viewer to be able to imagine what it would feel like to be immersed in that environment, to be bathed in it, like (even if in the smallest way) how I feel in front of a Rothko.

SC: Has the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh influenced you or inspired you to further develop this series of works in the future?

DC: I was planning on ending the series after this show, but I’ve discovered too many new possibilities while making these paintings to now make at least a few more.

SC: The flower paintings release an elegant invisible perfume of floral notes throughout the air of Inverleith House that reminds me of your chewing gum paintings, such as Silent Treatment, which released a sickly sweet aroma of artificial fruit. The title of this work alludes to the soundless and invisible presence of an artwork, though also explores the presence of something that cannot be documented or physically touched.  It brings to mind Duchamp’s attempts to encapsulate 50cc of Paris Air within a glass ampoule.  How significant is this principle of the untouchable within your work?

DC: The untouchable or invisible is probably what I think about most. I think art is invisible. Artists are able to make vessels, whether they are paintings, sculptures, videos or even their own bodies, but the actual art is invisible. It hovers between the object and the audience. I feel very strongly that art is not man made. Artists work around it and through it, and sometimes their objects are able to capture it or reflect it.

SC: The title of your exhibition, The Illusion of Life, takes its title from a Disney catalogue by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. Within the exhibition, the viewer is presented by The Illusion of Life, which takes the form of a double stranded helix made up by a hundred or so copies of this publication that acts metaphorically as the DNA of the exhibition. Can you elaborate on the importance of this publication within the context of not only your works on show, though within your practice as a whole?

DC: The book has been bouncing around my studio since 2001. I first got it while looking for images of the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio. She appeared in a painting in my first solo show at Rivington Arms in 2003, and then I started the first candle painting, but I ruined the source image I was using, which was a page from The Illusion of Life. I ordered a second copy of the book though the image was so different from the one I had been using, it seemed like the book had been made with a different printing press. I decided to order many copies of the book and collect all the variations in the printing. That’s how the series of candle paintings came about. I went on to make several more paintings based off of images I found within the book - an important one was of a bench in a clearing in the forest. And now I’m working from the Fantasia stills on a series I call The Miracle paintings. Using the books to make sculpture, as I do here, combines source material with found material. It’s very literal - kind of overly reductive in a way. And the stack of books is cut to look like it continues through the ceiling and down into the floor, which is a cheap trick but also surprisingly effective. I guess it comes back to the idea of suspension of disbelief, like with watching animation or with trompe l’oeil. I’m curious to what extent you get pulled into that world so that it feels as real as the real world, even though you know that it’s a drawing, that it’s a piece of art.

SC: Considering the materials you have explored (gum, flowers, lipstick), deterioration is a natural process within the materials aging process, where over time, the appearance of these materials will gradually alter. Is it important for the materials to stay vibrant? Is conservation considered within the making, storing and aging of your works?

DC: I think the decision to use material other than paint to make paintings in itself challenges ideas of the posterity of art and even what it means to be “vibrant.” If I were only interested in color staying true and saturated for as long a time as possible, I would probably just use paint. But I’m not really doing that here. I’m making paintings that are specifically about the fragility of a moment, about trying to pin down the energy from that moment and asking questions about what happens to that energy over time and what it reflects back on the viewer. What these flower paintings are now might not be what they are in ten, twenty, fifty or a hundred years, but hopefully the change will be absorbed into the paintings in a way that deepens their meaning instead of diminishing it. Hopefully the art in the paintings is stable even if the material changes. Everything deteriorates, and sometimes in preservation we actually lose something important. Trying to keep a dry flower petal from coming off a canvas is not a bad idea, but maybe it’s interesting to also consider just stepping back and allowing the change.

SC: This principle of captured air relates to your whoopee cushion works, for these novelty props once contained the exhaled air of a culprit who intended to jokingly trick another into being the perpetrator of an embarrassing fart. Hilarious, though fittingly, these whoopee cushion balloon sculptures are the embodiment of human exhalation that comments upon the capturing of something so fleeting and ephemeral that is essentially both abstract and humorous. Lets discuss the role of humor within your work for it reoccurs throughout your oeuvre…

DC: It’s true. It’s always been a part of the work. No matter how earnest, how sentimental or how dark my work has gotten, humor has always been present., and I think it has often mislead the audience into thinking I am making fun of something or someone or simply making a joke. Nothing could be further from the truth. I make things that represent the most honest pieces of me, but I’m always confused and usually digging through some heavy things when making my work, so it’s important for me to discuss lightness in the same breath. Humor really helps me feel through the darker more somber feelings. Probably true for most people.

SC: Your candle paintings own an allegorical significance that metaphorically relate to the blowing out or extinguishing of innocence, for these works own titles such as Whatever, Blow Me, So Long and Going, Going Gone. By comparing titles, to what extent do your paintings act as a metaphor relating to the delinquency of one’s past?

DC: Paintings are often about longing for me; for what was, for what I want to see now, for fleeting things. I’m trying to capture a moment, a feeling, a touch, a glance, an experience, or even an attitude. Things will forever change shape.

SC: Celebration is a theme that reoccurs in a disparate format throughout your oeuvre, for instance the confetti paintings appear as the capturing of a physical celebratory explosion. Though on the flipside, these works came out of a personal sadness. To what extent are your works based on autobiographical happenings within your life?

DC: Everything comes from a personal place.

SC: You pay homage to Terrance Malick’s film Days of Heaven through turning the famous tap dance scene into a magical moment. Empty Edwardian style shoes tap dance upon a ceiling mounted board, causing the viewer to shift viewing from the wall-mounted work to the ceiling. I am keen to know more about your reasoning to parody this particular scene?

DC: It’s a lot of things. Harmony Korine – a very close friend has had a major impact in the last few years of my life - he is someone who I talk to about my work a lot and we have collaborated on several projects. In a poem that is a companion to a painting of mine, he wrote about tap shoes falling from the sky, falling until the whole world was overflowing with tap shoes. I loved picturing this - the sound of millions of tap shoes hitting the ground across the whole world. In Harmony’s movie Gummo, he cast Linda Mann as one of the character’s mother, and they recreate that famous Malick scene. I guess I just wanted to continue the story.

SC: Referring to your short film Peanuts, are you subliminally referring to Terrance Malick’s Days of Heaven, by which the filmmakers also dropped peanut shells (from helicopters) to imitate the scene and illusion of locusts flying?

DC: I actually never heard that story before, but I love it!

SC: To conclude, can you discuss the relationship between Chuckles the Clown to the other works within The Illusion of Life?

DC: Words don’t really do right by Chuckles. I mean he is a dime store zombie clown. But I love how full of empathy he is. He is tragicomic death come back to life, and yet he has a real ease about him. He knows a lot that we don’t. 


PEANUTS (Teaser)

Images courtesy of Dan Colen, Astrup Fearnley Museum, Inverleith House and Gagosian Gallery.