Walking Tall: Interview with Dan Colen
Andrea Farr: You talk about having faith in your mediums, and I think this opens up a space for risks to be taken in your work. Is the incorporation of risk something inherent to the process of creating your work, or is it something that happens along the way?
Dan Colen: The most inherent part of my work is an obsessive need for control and some sort of perfectionistic ambition. Early on, I saw how flawed it was. My first show pulled the rug out from under me. I had put something out there but there weren’t enough signifiers for the things that I prioritized. At the end of the day, what’s in my head and what I make will never meet. But if I have faith that I’m moving towards what the object needs to be then I can get to what the object actually needs to be.
Andrea: Accessibility is an issue within contemporary art. It’s one thing to look at a painting made of bubblegum and see what you can get out of it based on your art history knowledge, but it’s another to feel a connection to the medium. So to me, what you create seems to be taking big risks, but what is your definition of risk?
Dan: Chance, faith, accident, discovery, exploration. If I don’t know what’s going to happen, I’m taking a risk. I can sneak back into a place where I know what’s going to happen so I feel safer, but I’m not happy with it. The beauty of art is that it gets to be so close to life itself-- it gets so close to breathing and feeling and real emotions. There’s an experience that comes out of the failure, and in a way [the desert paintings] are a little bit of an ode to that, just like Wile E. Coyote’s life is about that.
Andrea: I wanted to ask about Mailorder Mother Purgatory, but also about these new [desert paintings]. What are the sorts of things you want people to experience when they see them?
Dan: Everything begins with self-exploration. I really love acknowledging the actual physical space, the psychic and potential energy in that space. In the desert paintings, that Sisyphean tale is something that I was interested in exploring; what comes out of failure and death. I thought that Wile E. Coyote was a good way to explore those things, but those paintings for me become hypersexual.
Andrea: In what way?
Dan: [When I began Mailorder] I moved upstate, I never owned anything, then all of a sudden I had to buy silverware and all this shit. Mail order catalogs started coming to my house. I was already having a challenging experience with accepting my adulthood and those catalogs were not helpful. They were a metaphor. I was working on another sculpture, which was dedicated to this friend of mine who had just died. The materials were very heavy — leather, latex, steel, and rusted metal. I was struggling with them similarly to how I was with the Mailorders, and they ended up in the same space when I moved. Something changed in that space, and my intention behind the work became totally different. I liked the idea of considering what it means to lose somebody. It was really about these people that had died, and other things about other people I shared time with that I don’t anymore. That went on for many more years.
Andrea: It creates the opportunity for that abstraction to come out of these things that we think we know.
Dan: Once you roll into the darkness, you’re describing form. You’re not looking at a red strip anymore. It’s describing an atmosphere and perspective. Space becomes much more abstract. I really love that dilemma in the paintings, so I started thinking about the paintings in comparison to the sculptures, which were very soft and tender. I really started thinking of them as these wombs, and these paintings more like mothers than girlfriends. It’s just funny to think that I started out feeling like, “Fuck life. My life is horrible” and then ended up being, “Oh my god.”
Andrea: Speaking the Mailorder or your new Wile E. Coyote landscape appropriations, I’m really interested in this idea of using appropriated work. The history of appropriation is very politically and culturally involved, you think of Barbara Kruger or Richard Prince. What has appropriation meant to you and what has it done to your creative process?
Dan: Yeah, a lot, and I feel very connected to what you’re saying. Just even in terms of risk in a way, I have discomfort even with my use of Disney. I question it. I do think that cartoons are a really ripe place for me to work out of. I’m very happy to acknowledge that, and I really like how I can explore desire and fantasy there. By the time I’m done with these Mother paintings, it’ll be 20 years. Maybe I thought it would have been two years, so then you get stuck in this place where people are often like “Well, what is it about Disney?” and I don’t know if I could ever justify that. But regardless of that, it is something I want to pay tribute to the precision and mastery of those films, but also free them of their context, and let somebody have a moment of a personal experience.