‘Sweet Liberty’, Colen’s first major solo show in London, surveys the entirety of the artist’s career to date and also features new paintings and large-scale installations.
Colen came to prominence in New York in the early 2000s alongside a group of young artists that was informally labelled the ‘Bowery School’. The group included Hannah Liden, Nate Lowman, Ryan McGinley, Agathe Snow and Dash Snow among others.
Playful and nihilistic, Colen’s work examines notions of identity and individuality, set against a portrait of contemporary America. ‘Sweet Liberty’ spans a period of seismic change in US history: the earliest painting in the show, Me, Jesus and the Children (2001–2003), was begun days after the 9/11 attacks, whilst the newest exhibited pieces were made in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.
Colen’s influences range from early modern religious painting to Arte Povera, Abstract Expressionism and Pop. These appear alongside the use of the ready-made, photorealism, trompe l’oeil, graffiti and traditional crafts. Continually playing with the relationship between object, viewer and environment, Colen invites fundamental questions concerning the role of the artist, such as: “Where does art happen? Where in the process does something transform or pick up new energies or new possibilities?” (Source: Interview with Ali Subotnick, Sweet Liberty, exh. cat., Newport Street Gallery, London 2017.)
Colen is well-known for using so-called waste materials as paint. Examples of his long-running series of Gum paintings feature in the show, made from countless individual pieces of chewed gum [Pop My Cherry! (2010)], or vast, sculptural smears of brightly coloured stuff, in the more recent Marbles in My Mouth and All Mops and Brooms (both 2015). The Trash works, meanwhile [Oh Madonna! and Mama Mia! (both 2016)], mix discarded ephemera – gathered by the artist from the streets of New York – with paint. The trash objects are used as unwieldy brushes to form shapes based on the compositions of Raphael’s exalted Madonna and Child paintings.
Much of Colen’s work can be read as self-portraiture, or explorations of what the self means, particularly within the context of American masculinity. On entering the exhibition, the viewer is immediately confronted with The Big Kahuna (2010–2017), a giant American flag, with twisted flagpole and a 20-tonne concrete base, presented as if uprooted from the landscape. Barely contained by the gallery space, the flag was conceived as a self-portrait in 2010, after a challenging period in the artist’s life. Today, however, the political statement feels unavoidable; the flag’s bloated, patriotic machismo failed and laid to waste.
A significant collection of the artist’s Board works, in which slogans and phrases are seemingly spontaneously spray-painted, as well as paintings from Colen’s newest series, Viscera, also feature in ‘Sweet Liberty’. Conceived as details of rainbows, Viscera (2016) and Viscera (2016–2017) bear countless layers of unadulterated pigment in fractionally different shades, which combine to create dense hues. Colen’s multi-layered Scooby Doo sculpture, Haiku (2015–2017), bears testimony to his interest in the development of image-making, whereby digital technologies attempt to invite the immortal characters of a fantasy, cartoon realm into the ‘real’ world.
The presence of Colen’s extraordinary 2012–2013 installation, Livin and Dyin, is felt throughout the exhibition, in negative spaces punched aggressively through the gallery walls that expose the underlying brickwork. When Livin and Dyin finally reaches its denouement, it does so in the collapsed shapes of the cartoon figures of Wile E. Coyote, Kool-Aid Man and Roger Rabbit, as well as a life-size sculpture of the naked artist himself. Colen considers the all-American, male characters to be self-portraits of sorts. He has explained that he imagines Livin and Dyin “as an orgy where you don’t know if it’s after or before climax, it’s about that edge – where does it begin, where does it end?” He continues: “This show is about those dichotomies – form and content, material and narrative – opposing or not necessarily related things that are both pivotal parts of one’s experience.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, with texts by Hugh Allan, Francesco Bonami, Blair Hansen and an interview between the artist and Ali Subotnick. In conjunction with the exhibition, Colen will present a live performance of Livin and Dyin during Frieze week.