Ben Eastham is a writer and editor based in London. He is founding editor and publisher of The White Review and associate editor of ArtReview. He was an associate editor of the documenta 14 magazine, and his writing has appeared in the London Review of Books, the New York Times, Frieze, Mousse, the Times Literary Supplement, and elsewhere.
Pliny the Elder recounts a competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, the two preeminent painters of their era. To resolve a dispute over which is the greater artist, each paints a mural. When the time comes for the works to be seen, Zeuxis unveils a still life so convincing that a flock of birds swoops down to peck at his painted grapes. Confident of victory, he calls on his rival to draw back the drapes covering his painting and let his work be judged. Pointing out that the drapes themselves are painted, in exquisite trompe l’oeil, Parrhasius wins.
The first principle of painting, it seems, was to mislead.
Approaching Dan Colen’s Brooklyn studio, I peer through plate-glass doors at a large painting that appears from a distance to be a geometric abstraction in a mid-century American tradition, a jigsaw of interlocking planes in flat secondary colors. As I move closer, the forms resolve into a desert landscape bisected on the diagonal by a road diminishing down a mountain tunnel. Only once in the studio do I realize that the image—like all of the works in Colen’s new Desert series—is abstracted from Fast and Furry-ous (1949), the first of Chuck Jones’s animated film and television shorts to feature the Roadrunner and his pursuer, Wile E. Coyote. Colen’s painting re-creates a still frame showing a painting—the sham tunnel that the coyote has painted on a cliff face, adding a painted highway leading directly into the rock.
In a neighboring painting, the flummoxed Wile E. Coyote and his pots and brushes have been edited out of a picture showing the same trompe l’oeil tunnel from a different angle, a still just a few seconds later in the cartoon. The spatial illusion of perspective is undone by the oblique angle from which the coyote’s mural is now seen, so that any viewer who might conceivably have been deceived by the tunnel as it is depicted in the first painting—because the illusion is so effective—is alerted to the trick. The revelation is typical of the experience of Colen’s paintings, which play on our faith in the capacity of painting to transcend its own two-dimensionality.
The idea for a series of desert paintings first came to Colen in the early 2000s, when he imagined that they would be based on selections of photographs he had taken with a medium-format camera during his travels around the United States and Mexico. For all their preoccupation with trompe l’oeil, these paintings are less concerned with creating an illusion of the world as we experience it than in interrogating the purpose of painting itself, and as such participate in a long tradition that plays on the dynamic between paint as material and paint as image. That Colen abandoned the idea of using photographs in favor of source material that makes no claim to realistically depict the landscape—material that the viewer already understands as constructed and secondary—serves as a means of complicating our understanding of what it means to represent and reimagine the world.
The popular imagination’s association of the American West with painters and pioneers in search of an elusive sublime may be reflected in the name given to the Road Runner’s antagonist in Jones’s preliminary sketches for his cartoon series. The doomed attempts of “Don Coyote,” as he was at that point evocatively named, position him as US pop culture’s representative in a lineage of fictional obsessives stretching from Ethan Edwards through Captain Ahab and back to Cervantes’s errant knight. These are characters in search of an object that is also an idea. Armed only with a gift for sculptural assemblage (one early episode features a self-propelling machine constructed from a refrigerator, a meat grinder, skis, and suspenders), a gift for trompe l’oeil painting, and, not least, monomania, the coyote pursues a goal that would give meaning to his life.
Colen has been preoccupied with themes of performance, illusion, and self-portraiture in painting ever since his first exhibition, at Rivington Arms Gallery in 2003 (an exhibition that showcased his own obsessive streak, given that its four paintings took him four years to complete). In Me, Jesus and the Children (2001–03), the artist’s bare torso serves as the backdrop for three frolicking cherubim, the resemblance of his parted shirt to stage curtains playing on the relationship between theater and painting, artist and subject, figure and ground. In this new suite of paintings, the protagonists have been edited out of the scene, transforming pictures that in their original formulation served as fleeting moments in a seamless moving image into static scenic backdrops like those knocked up by Wile E. Coyote and placed in front of broken bridges or gaping ravines.
The objecthood of these paintings is most clearly telegraphed by the wrapping of each image around the edges of the stretched canvas that supports it, so that each picture extends—in the literal sense—across three dimensions. The surfaces of the works, too, make clear that paint is being treated as a physical material as much as a vehicle for the communication of pictorial information. They show this not through impasto—although the surfaces are heavily worked, the topography of these paintings is flat—but through close attention to the physical qualities of the pigments, which are predominantly unmixed and suspended in the bare minimum of oil. The consequence is that the surfaces are as harsh, arid, and granular as the desert scenes they describe. Because the pigments are so dry, the relationships among the colors is defined as much by the basic elementary constitution of the materials on the canvas as by their reception in the mind of the perceiver. Thus Colen and his studio obsess over the particular textures of the iron-oxide earth pigments that yield the paintings’ variegated ochers, siennas, and umbers, and over the chemical constitution of chromium yellows and cadmium reds. The paint is built up slowly, with particular attention paid to the border areas in which the pigments combine unpredictably. The results contrast markedly with the Purgatory paintings that I had seen in Colen’s upstate New York studio the previous day, a series of sprayed paintings of light-dappled clouds rendered in oil so thinly diluted as to resemble the gaseous forms it represents.
At the back of the Brooklyn studio, under sharp winter light skimmed by a low sun across the Hudson Bay and through the studio windows, an assistant is busily rolling thin layers of brilliant cornflower blue into a desert sky. The cerulean color riffs thrillingly off the ocher of a mountain in the foreground, to Colen’s visible excitement. As we move around different desert scenes, he describes the variety of sometimes idiosyncratic tools with which he and his team have sought to create different effects—at one point cutting squeegees into narrow sections so as to pull hand-width strips of paint across the canvas—and points out a selection of brushes, rollers, pallet knives, trowels, and spatulas.
These experiments in color and tone are facilitated by the tightly regulated process through which each painting is made. Over the two years dedicated to these Desert paintings, Colen and his studio have identified different phases in the completion of a canvas. The intention is not to transform the practice of painting into a series of mechanical steps but to ensure that the focus does not stray from the means—the way one color responds to another, how a pigment is absorbed into the canvas—by which a painting proceeds to its ostensible end, which might crudely be summarized as the creation of a picture. The value of these paintings consists in their meticulous attention to the various properties of the materials of which they are composed.
The paintings are in this sense the records of a push and pull between creativity and constraint, accident and design. The source image is the most obvious constraint, outlining the broad parameters of the painting’s composition. But this basic design doesn’t stymy creativity any more than the landscape restricts a plein air painter: it simply sets the boundaries within which to create. An example: in the bottom-right-hand section of one painting is a scruff of dappled shrubbery that, at the time of my visit, more closely resembled a late-Impressionist flirtation with abstraction. Colen exhorted his team to “go wild” in their rendering of what, in the original image, is nothing more than a green smudge denoting bush scrub. By isolating moments and incidents on the canvas, the procedures Colen has put in place encourage chance and by extension providence, making it possible to “go wild” in ways likely to be almost entirely imperceptible to the casual viewer but that nonetheless nuance her experience of the painting. These works are exercises in the study of color through trial and error rather than through theory; they take time to make and demand time to appreciate.
I stand silently by as Colen engages in an animated discussion with two studio assistants about a half-inch-square region in one of the tunnel paintings, a hard border between fields of iron blue and brick red that in its tonal juxtapositions represents, I gather, a breakthrough. Colen has isolated a barely perceptible blotch of acid green at the narrow overlap of these imbricate planes, and wants to replicate it. These lessons are carried across from one canvas to another, meaning that a discovery about the precise effects of a certain color in the context of one of the paintings will have ramifications for all the others. So the paintings are linked together in the process of their composition—the lessons learned and applied, the happy accidents transformed retrospectively into method—as much as in the subject matter. These immediate-seeming images, which flash by in their original function as animation, are in their reimagination as paintings underpinned by months of intensive labor. The accumulation of paint over time—the fourth dimension in which these paintings exist—offers a model for understanding the way experience is encoded into material, a function of art that has long preoccupied Colen.
Wile E. Coyote’s attempts to trick the Road Runner into running into the trompe l’oeil tunnel, incidentally, are at once a success and a failure. Speeding down the diverted highway, Road Runner “meep meeps” blithely through the painted passageway and disappears out the far side of the mountain. Trying to shake off his bewilderment, our determined antihero sets off in pursuit but only stuns himself against the rock face. It’s a reminder that Colen’s paintings are at once illusions and objects, pictures and things, and are predicated on faith.
Artwork © Dan Colen; photos: Eric Piasecki; Dan Colen: High Noon, Gagosian, Beverly Hills, November 2–December 15, 2018