Daniel Colen is an artist based in New York. His work consists of painted sculptures appropriating low-cultural ephemera, graffiti-inspired paintings of text executed in paint, and installations. His Purgatory Paintings are on show at MDC, Massimo de Carlo Gallery in Milan, from May 9th until June 14th 2017 and are a continuation of his pursuit of placing art between the worlds of abstraction and representation. Each canvas, seen from a distance, looks like cloudscapes, however, as one’s body enters the close physical space of the canvas, the subject matter dissolves into a fog of formlessness and colour. I interviewed him in his studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which is on two very large floors of a red brick building that is just on the water.
Dan, your new works represent desert, stones, cactus, loneliness, light. How come you make these landscapes when you are here, in front of Manhattan?
I split my time and studio practice between New York City and my farm in Columbia County. Access to the wilderness has become very important to me. I’ve spent a lot of time driving and hiking all over America, Mexico, South America and Europe, and I find the experience of being immersed in nature very inspiring. That said, the city has always been and continues to be very important to me. After my first show at Rivington Arms in 2003, showing photorealist paintings of interior spaces, I had an inspiration to make landscape paintings, but instead pursued a different need, to break out of the confines of 2-D and the picture plane of painting. I began making sculpture and working with less traditional materials, so these landscape paintings have been a long time coming.
What did you do?
I made two architectural pieces – both almost like ruins: one was my friend Dash’s wall and the other, titled Hugs, Drugs and Bugs, looked like a large wooden crate, its structure inspired by Jeff Wall’s Vampires’ Picnic. These works led me to the boulder sculpture series that I showed at the Whitney Biennial in 2006.
When did the Bubblegum paintings come?
The Bubblegum and Birdshit paintings came directly out of these Boulders.
How did you decide to do this?
The papier-mâché boulders I was making at the time were covered in trompe-l’oeil birdshit, as well as bubblegum and spray paint. The birdshit and bubblegum both immediately seemed worthy of their own focused explorations. This began a longer fascination I’m still connected to: the idea that a painting is both an image and an object.
Is your work figurative or abstract?
I began trying to juggle pursuing figuration and abstraction simultaneously in the work. Maybe tightrope-walking is a better metaphor; I was trying to stay on the edge of a fence, so I was always one step away from a very blatant display of both forms of representation. This dovetailed very naturally with my interests in trompe-l’oeil. Setting out to place equal value on content (picture, narrative, theme), process and material became a guiding principal in studio. I see the new landscape paintings as the culmination of all these investigations.
Were these works successful?
The Birdshit and Bubblegum paintings were very important for my development. I witnessed them truly transcend my original goals. The material took over. Both groups of paintings began as straightforward conceptually based works and transformed into sincere, lyrical abstractions.
When did you invent the famous Candle paintings?
In 2004, soon after my first show. The image is of a candle that has just gone out. The space in the painting is depicted as still being illuminated by some light emanating from the wick of the candle. It occurs to me as a divine light – like the burning bush: a place to commune with God. It was a still from Pinocchio: Geppetto’s work table, the place where a craftsman brought an inanimate object to life. It all seemed very fitting. I originally intended a series of different images, all which gave me a similar feeling of a divine transmitter.
Were you also influenced by Vermeer?
I made a painting of a detail from a Vermeer painting. It was of the glass globe that hung from the ceiling in his painting The Allegory of Faith. I loved how simply and precisely Vermeer painted the globe and ribbon – the paint marks are so evident as material and tool, but the image is also so vivid. This unfortunately proved less fertile of a subject for me, and so I set off on making a series of candle paintings. I added smoke in the shape of words – each one had a different word or expression. Each painting has as its source the same image, but from a different edition of the book. These editions, made decades apart and presumably with different printing presses that gave them this wide variety of colors and resolution, is something that allowed each painting its own character. I understand my Candle paintings as highly mediated – my touch was informed by a trail of other crafts and touches: animators cell, photographer, book printer… and then finally oil paint.
How many works do you do on the same subject?
It really varies from each body of work. Sometimes just a few, maybe a dozen paintings as with the Candles or the Board paintings, or sometimes several dozen as with the Birdshit and Bubblegums. This is an outcome from open exploration and finding new pockets of potential in the series that I didn’t know existed from the outset.
Do you paint by yourself?
I began painting alone in a room, but ever since my senior project in art school and the increasing pressure of deadlines I have worked with the help of friends when finalizing my projects. I’m always working with new techniques, which can really make progress slow and hard. I needed help to finish up my first show as well – once the Candle paintings became too large for me to accomplish the wet-into-wet technique that I used to make them, I began needing more hands.
What about your sculptures?
The early sculptures also played a role in developing a more consistent relationship with assistants. Their role in my practice has developed over the years; I maintain very intimate dialogues with many of them and enjoy their insights and the progress they allow for. My work has opened up because of these relationships and the more my practice evolves the more people I come in contact with that help me realize my ideas. I find all these relationships very fulfilling. I’m always juggling working with master craftsmen and apprenticeships; I find both dialogues very compelling and helpful in moving the work forward.
Since when did yours become a successful story?
I’m not sure I can really say, it’s hard to pinpoint that moment. The Whitney Biennial in 2006 seemed important, as did a group show called Bridge Freezes Before Road that Neville Wakefield curated at Gladstone Gallery a few months before that. Another thing that stands out is my first show at Gagosian – I’m not sure you can even call it a show, it happened before I met Larry. I hung four altered found paintings in the four bathrooms on 24th street. It opened at the same time as a David Smith show in the main space. At the time I couldn’t imagine a more epic show.
Your work has become quite expensive. Has money changed your life?
Biggie Smalls said it best: “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” Honestly, I’m very grateful for all my successes and try to use that gratitude as a driving force. The biggest impact the money has had is that it has allowed me to pursue my art with fewer and fewer distractions in more and more precise ways.
Did success trouble you?
Success can be troubling at times. The feeling of letting go of a work around my first few shows was difficult – experiencing a work that I’m intimately connected to leave my studio and turn into a consumer object was challenging, but I adjusted to that. Mostly I’m grateful for my success. It allows my studio practice to develop in a totally unobstructed way. Well, not really, but I’ve had a lot of freedom to follow my development in a very natural way. I have a lot of gratitude for this.
What about now?
I’m at an interesting moment in which I’m taking stock of the studio I’ve created. As I said, it happened in a very natural way. I’m now seeing things in retrospect that might work better if I arrange them a little differently. I’m trying to reorganize so less things can distract me from the art making.
How did you move on since the Candles and Bubblegum? Where are you now?
I am very focused on three new bodies of oil paintings, all landscapes. It has been a long time since I have put such a focus on oil painting, which is very exciting. I’ve also been developing an ambitious performance-based project over the last few years. Fine tuning the script has been a very slow process, but I’ll hopefully start working on rehearsals with actors and objects in the next few months.
You will show your new Purgatory paintings in Milan at Massimo De Carlo Gallery. What are they?
I think of these paintings as objects just as much as images. John McCracken would say he sculpted with color, and that idea, as well as his sculptures in general, has really informed these paintings; both the surface and the paint getting built up in a very precise way. These paintings are basically made through a highly ordered build-up of transparent oil glazes. Unlocking the right formula for each work takes a lot of trial and error. They could be seen as paintings of skies, but the abstract atmosphere Rothko builds up seems more relevant to me – the idea that a painting can be a place to have a spiritual experience is very important to me.
Desert is another series that is not completed and that hangs in your studio. The contrast between walls, meaning dark, and the light, seems to be very important, like a search for light and the pursuit of freedom. Is it so?
The Desert paintings are kind of the flip side of the same coin as the Purgatory paintings. They are about what is impenetrable, about dirt, rock, and earth – they are meant to be impenetrable themselves. They are about hope in the hopelessness, or the infinity at a dead end. The paint is pure; I use no mediums; as opposed to the Purgatory paintings, which are mostly sprayed, and so I think of them as air and the Desert paintings as earth. I build up very thin, very flat layers, and although the imagery is so blatant, this searching is a very romantic and abstract experience. One mark clues you into the next, the paint is more important to the development than the source image. That said, the source has helped shape these works. Each image is from Wile E Coyote cartoons, and they depict the places where he has failed, where he has been destroyed and defeated by the Road Runner. Which also is the same place where he is resurrected, only to concoct another mischievous plan that will inevitably end in his own demise.
Does it take you a long time to start and finish a painting?
Yes, painting for me is very slow and searching. I am looking to discover something in the process, in the making, that I did not know at the outset.
Do you produce a lot of work?
The amount of work I make varies. At the moment everything with both my painting and sculpture is developing very slowly, so I will probably produce a much smaller body of work in the next few years than I have in the last few.
Do you have any masters?
I love art, and I love looking at art. I try to see as much as possible in person, and I am constantly looking at books. As I’ve mentioned the inspiration for these new paintings is varied – McCracken and Rothko are important, so are Brice Marden, Mark Grotjahn and Agnes Martin. I’ve been looking at a lot of landscape and spiritualist painters: Georgia O’Keefe, Arthur Dove, Agnes Pelton, Barnett Newman, and Courbet Claude Lorraine. The German Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Hudson River School, and Ed Ruscha have also always been important to how I think about painting.
And with sculpture?
My sculpture and performance work draw from similar inspirations, but I’d say Nauman is very important. I have been looking at Pierre Huyghe and Urs Fischer a lot lately. Everything creeps into the work; Leos Carax movies, Stephen Reich, Beckett, Sam Shepard, Buster Keaton, The Three Stooges…
Do you draw or take notes?
My sketchbooks play a big role in my practice. I write and I draw – I go through times in which most of my progress is happening in my notebooks and other times where the only way forward is working with the actual material.
Do you like to draw?
My training was in drawing, so it is very important to me. But at this stage I really only use it to think, brainstorm and plan.
Portrait of Dan Colen: Photograph by Bibi Borthwick. Courtesy Dan Colen, all rights reserved.