In conversation with Dan Colen

Dan Colen latest exhibition Sweet Liberty opens today at Newport Street Gallery, London.

Me, Jesus and the Children (2001-2003) © Dan Colen

The Guardian once called him a part of the New York-based Warhol’s Children; a set of kids that emerged onto the New York art scene in the early 2000s with artists such as Dash Snow and Ryan McGinley. With the exception of Dash, who passed away in 2009, each of them continue to play a significant role in shaping the art world. “Sweet Liberty”, which is Colen’s first major London solo show and spans over fifteen years, is a great showcase of just that. It’s a portrait of contemporary America from past to present combined with his new works, including large-scale installations.

On the occasion of the exhibition, Colen states: “This show is the first time I’ve been able to present the full range of my work and the wide-ranging ideas, crafts, materials, technologies and processes that I engage with. The earliest piece in the exhibition was begun eleven days before 9/11 and the exhibition follows my intuitive trajectory over the last fifteen years, which has allowed me to consider the transforming power of art when it’s experienced in different moments and contexts. It also creates a perfect space for the viewer to settle in on my interests, which are sure but can be meaningless, often formless, striving for the inexplicable; which can be most felt in the negative spaces, the cracks, the holes and barely perceptible lines that are always there connecting all seemingly disparate things.”

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What was the last thing you did prior this interview?

Moved a 20-ton block of concrete into the gallery at Newport Street.

You grew up skateboarding with people like Ryan McGinley, Aaron Bondarof, etc. Then there was Dash Snow, Leo Fitzpatrick, Earsnot, all so crucial for the NYC scene back in the 90’s, and also today. Did you ever think all of you, if we take out Dash, would still be this successful in 2017, and did you even think, growing up, this is the life you will lead?

There’s nothing more rewarding than growing old and finding success and fulfillment together with the friends who you literally grew up with. I could never have imagined this life, no.

I don’t want to bring Dash much into this, but he was a significant part of your life, so it is hard not to do so. When he passed away in 2009, how did that affect your practice? What changed after that?

I understand, and you’re right, he was a huge part of my life and left a significant mark. He continues to have an impact. Somehow the combination of his death and his daughter Secret’s new life rattled a meticulous but precarious system of beliefs I had constructed over the prior two decades. My studio practice changed as a result. I moved to upstate New York, I built a functioning farm and really began to connect deeply with nature. This shift from a nocturnal life, inside the city, which really more and more became a life inside my own mind, to rising with the sun and spending most of my time on my farm in the Hudson Valley, was massive. It’s hard to track the exact nature of the impact it has had on my practice, but the move and the transition since then has changed the spaces I work in, the tools I work with, the people I work with, the materials, and how I go about turning my experiences into art ideas and art objects. Then there was obviously more of a direct impact – my relationships with my friends and dialogue with other artists is very important to the way my work develops. Outside of my own intuitive process, my friends have the biggest impact on the development of my work. Dash’s death did not leave a vacuum of impact but rather allowed for his impact to come from, I guess – something like a new dimension. I find a lot of inspiration in his physical absence, but deeply miss our dialogue and our bond. He was one of a kind.

Do you ever feel pressured when it comes to creating new work? What has been your experience creating the exhibition for Newport Street Gallery?

I’d like to say no, but I do. You can see it at NSG more acutely than ever: I am trying to accomplish things that really stretch the limits of my capabilities and experience. I set high standards, and it can sometimes be a little painful trying to dial things in. That said, I’m very happy with how this show in particular, and my body of work as a whole, has developed over the years.

Tell me more about the exhibition. I am especially interested in the new work. Will it be installations, painting, a mix of both? What do you have in store that we haven’t seen before?

This show will introduce some brand new works, both paintings and sculpture. A lot of the work is site-specific, and there are massive architectural interventions. But what I think is most significant about the show, and I really wanna make sure to credit Damien here- and the utter faith he put behind me and my work, it’s an opportunity to share what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. Many of the pieces, although I’ve exhibited them in varied stages of completion, have been years and years in the making, and I’m only fully realizing them for the first time here at NSG.

In the past you elevated quite a few things that are far from being artsy or even tasteful. Like chewing gum, bird shit, trash, confetti, etc. What triggered in your head to the point you started doing work out of this stuff?

I’ve always wanted to make work about things I’m interested in. Things I’ve seen or experienced. I started those works when I was pretty young. My life was lived out in the streets, on stoops, in parks, on rooftops … skateboarding, running around with a graffiti crew. Nothing really triggered, one thing led to the other.

How long does it usually take to develop an idea and bring it to the physical state?

This question and the varied explorations I’ve indulged in are central for my work. I love playing with different levels or types of craft, labor, precision, accident, spontaneity, etc. I’ve made some things in this show in 5 minutes, other works I’ve been making for the last 6 or 7 years. How and when do these objects become potent, is something I’m always searching for a clearer understanding of.

How fundamental are your assistants in the work you do now?

I work with a wide range of people both in and out of my own studio. I really enjoy all these relationships and find a lot of inspiration. They have definitely altered my works trajectory and changed the way I think about making.

When doing new work, testing new techniques, do you talk with someone prior going fully into it, or you trust your own instincts?

The dilemma of faith and doubt in my own ideas is in a way what the work is all about. The original faith must come from an internal place, but as I get older, I realize more and more how important others confidence and support is for my work. It was always important, whether it came from my parents, my friends, my gallerist. I don’t have a person who’s opinion alone I let shape the work, but I keep openly ended dialogues with a lot of people. All this seeps into the way in which I go about starting new works and go off in new directions.

What are you working on next, and can you tell me more about your exhibition at Levy Gorvy next year?

My exhibition at Levy Gorvy is in a way the first substantial presentation of my return to painting. The show will present a range of works, there will be an older body of work called “Mailorders Paintings” that was in a way a bridge back to these newer paintings, and so this seemed the perfect opportunity to share it for the first time. There will be two new bodies of oil paintings, as well as a sculpture I’ve been working on for a while, and performance with an adolescent busker.

Ok, moving away from work – tell me about your farm in Columbia County. What do you do there? How many animals do you have? Do you grow your own produce?

My farm is called Sky High Farm. We just received nonprofit status, so we will slowly transition into a new operating system which should allow us to grow and diversify in many ways. But basically, I grow organic fruits and vegetables, keep bees and raise grass-fed cows, lambs, chickens and pigs for meat. 100% of the food is donated locally, some to the food banks in Columbia and Dutchess counties and some to organizations which help bring food to under-served communities in NYC. We’ve been producing more and more each year, and at this point provide about 40,000 meals a season. Living on the farm, interacting with the animals, working with my farmers and food banks and their clients is beyond fulfilling.

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Interview: Katja Horvat

Photos: Courtesy of the artist and Newport Street Gallery