Colen emerged onto the New York art scene in the early 2000s alongside artists such as Dash Snow and Ryan McGinley. Brilliantly witty, shocking, poignant and nihilistic, his art presents a portrait of contemporary America and is, in part, an investigation into the act of producing and looking at art.
Alongside significant early works such as Me, Jesus and the Children (2001–2003) – a photorealist painting of the artist’s chest, overlaid with cartoon cherubs and floating speech bubbles – the exhibition features paintings from Colen’s long-running ‘Gum’ and ‘Trash’ series. In the ‘Gum’ paintings, spots of brightly coloured chewing gum – usually only seen in the mouths of others or stuck to the soles of shoes – are layered onto the canvas as paint. The ‘Trash’ works incorporate rubbish and discarded ephemera, the kind you would often encounter piled up in the street. Referencing Arte Povera, Abstract Expressionism and action painting, the trash is mixed with paint and used as an unwieldy brush to form shapes based on Raphael’s exalted Madonna and Child paintings. With their irreverent borrowing from art history and disruptive combination of abstraction and figuration, they are paintings about painting, paintings about belief.
The exhibition features four installations, in which Colen continues to appropriate and subvert imagery from the globalised mass media and American subcultures. In these installations, Colen’s examinations of masculinity and individuality are brought to the fore. The bloated, spent machismo of the American Dream is laid bare to reveal a deep-seated existential unease.
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.”