Modernity and Mysticism in the Art of Dan Colen

Photo of Alexandra Gushurst-Moore
11 December 2015

Dan Colen is a North American artist living and working in New York State. His work explores ideas of modernity and urbanity, contrasted with an enchanted reality, and draws on themes such as mysticism, magic and religion. Through his art he also indicates an interest in the origin of art, and the role of the artist.

Dan Colen is a divisive character. The media depicts him as a bad boy, a modern-day Warholian rebel going against the grain of respectability. Colen himself has spoken candidly about his lifestyle in 2000s New York, agreeing that it went some way towards making him successful – ‘Bad Boys Sell,’ goes one article.

Notoriety has marked Colen from an early age, but most skip over the artistic influences of his childhood. His father is a wood and clay sculptor, and many of Colen’s early friendships were based on a mutual appreciation of art. Notable examples include Ryan McGinley and the late Dash Snow, together with whom his debauched image was crafted.

In contrast to the boozing, drug-fuelled lifestyle of his 20s, Colen now lives on a farm in New York’s Hudson Valley, tending livestock and working, and this new pastoral spirit pervades his work. It is often hard for us to imagine how we can reconcile modernity with the natural world, but his work fuses a magical realism with the contemporary city.

It is often uneasy viewing: bird feces cascade down a white canvas; harsh, seedy statements are scrawled haphazardly across perfect enamel-coated boards; chewed gum is thrown in seeming carelessness onto pristine surfaces. There is a lot of angst – perhaps in recognition of the difficulties of being a creative young man in such a volatile age and profession.

Colen’s piece Untitled (Vete al Diablo), in London’s Saatchi Gallery, explores this visceral tension between the modern and the natural. Layers of neon graffiti cover the surface of a rock that stands proud and upright, reminiscent of an ancient standing stone. The words ‘Holy War’ shout out from the melee of voices. Has the surface been defaced? Or is the rock just a rock without the surface?

Or take his paintings Ride of the Valkyries and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, both from his 2013 Miracle paintings. In the former, ghostly figures loom through primordial plasma, shapes lingering like the transient creatures of beloved fairy stories. In the latter, a glimmering arc rises across a palpitating surface of purple – an allusion to Fantasia – and in that singular magical gesture, Colen opens his audience to a world of enchantment. The arc beckons us in, as if to Neverland.

Colen’s work also examines the role of the artist, engaging with the idea – prominent in aesthetic theories and texts – that the origin of art is beyond the individual. There is certainly a spiritual presence in his pieces, and Colen has remarked that his Miracle paintings are ‘portraits of God’. This comment is both off-putting – implying a touch of messiah complex – and intriguing, a basis for examining the work as an insight into popular conceptions of God: illusory, enchanting – and dangerous.

Colen is too easily written-off as a demi-god of modern decadence, yet this fails to recognize his contribution to myth and enchantment. His work subtly presents themes of intimate concern for everyone. Colen’s work develops with age, and there is much to look forward to from this small Hudson Valley farm in coming years.

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