Francesco Bonami has curated more than one hundred exhibitions, among them the Venice Biennale in 2003 and the Whitney Biennial in 2010. He writes for La Repubblica, Artnews, and Vogue Italia. His most recent books include Post: L’opera d’arte nell’epoca della sua riproducibilità sociale (Feltrinelli, 2019) and Mum, I Want to Be an Artist: How to Avoid Delusions (Karma Books, forthcoming).
In works ranging from painting and sculpture to installation and performance, Dan Colen plays with familiar materials and cultural symbols to interrogate the relationship between meaning and object. He is the founder of Sky High Farm, a nonprofit committed to improving access to fresh, nutritious food for New Yorkers living in underserved communities.
Francesco Bonami Looking at your work from the beginning—all of your work, no matter what style or method you use—it’s all about nostalgia.
Dan Colen Yeah, nostalgia has been an important theme from the outset.
FB There is a sense of transforming the present into some kind of time capsule or time-based fiction—a period picture, you know?
DC Time in general, the passing of time, and an artwork’s capacity to capture a single moment and re-present it are ideas that have always driven my creative process. With so much technology at our fingertips and an endless number of options for how we choose to create, painting feels so limited, but it is still clearly so vital. As a tool to capture a moment in time, it’s always seemed like it has the most power.
The intention to capture a moment is almost a technical issue, and nostalgia is maybe more of a poetic device. I like to play in that zone.
A lot of the work also has to do with death and loss, or with deterioration and the impossibility of permanence. Like the Flower paintings [2010–16]—they are these objects that are slowly fading away; they offer the possibility of becoming more and more potent as they become less and less present. The difference between memory and object, or the difference between the object and the feeling, is something that I’m always trying to consider—this idea of permanence and impermanence and trying to hold on to things.
FB Being so symbolic, the space of painting has no boundary. It’s limited in terms of physical space, but it’s not limited by any form or in terms of what you can do. And you prove this with your body of work—that inside that given space, which becomes almost like a screen, anything can happen.
DC Yes, definitely. That’s what the exploration is about. I find it important to work in other mediums as well, because that keeps me sharp for painting. I want to constantly see how it can be in dialogue with three-dimensional space, or moving space.
FB I think about your work as a kind of merging of things that, as they become a painting, disappear in reality. I have a feeling that you’re constantly floating from a painting into something more real—that sometimes for you as things become real, they become unreal. It seems to be a negotiation with the idea of time, but also more about disappearance, which is different, I think.
DC Yeah, coming in and out of reality, trying to consider what’s real and what’s not, is something that I’m interested in. Nostalgia is a way to explore that slippery space between real and unreal, right? The difference between a memory or a feeling and an experience or an object . . . I guess an artwork, classically, is created in hopes of withstanding some of the deterioration that everything else experiences. We imagine these things far into the future.
But yeah, there’s disappearance or loss, and then the question of reality and unreality or the imagined. I guess a simple comparison is the difference between the body and the spirit—you know, is my body more real or is my spirit more real? My rabbi would tell me that my spirit is more real. I mean, I just have to believe that an artwork carries a spirit, which is what touches the viewer. But how important is the object to that?
In all this searching for what is real or true or meaningful, I am at the same time trying to accept the basicness of our lives—this shared experience, which can be very, very boring, like making my bed or brushing my teeth—and then also trying to deal with more complicated ideas, feelings, and experiences that we think of as more profound.
The Mailorder paintings [2013–15] for me were about this dilemma. They consider whether it’s worth organizing one’s life: folding your clothes or color-coding your closet. But at the same time they set out to meditate on loss, and on the different ways in which we experience the pain of deep loss. What is the difference between a love deciding to leave, and moving on with their life, and a love dying and moving on from this earth, their physical body no longer being present in your day-to-day experience, but their spirit or their memory still being an influence? Are those spirits made of the same material?
FB In the Mother series [2008–19], the absence is clear. And I think a lot of your work is about this—someone or something is absent. You feel it. It’s not a void; it’s a different thing.
DC Yes, that feeling has always been a part of the work. The absences were there even in my first show, in the interiors, like the bedroom painting. As I was finishing those works, I realized that they were all about what was missing. They had a lot to do with disconnecting from a love in my life that I felt very close to but couldn’t resolve how to include in those formative years of my studio practice. I was so focused on learning how to spend my days painting, spending time with myself in my studio.
Soon after that, I started losing a lot of friends. I guess I was compelled to connect to these losses, these disappearances, in my creative process; it was happening so consistently. In the work it became about relating to loss in general, how it impacts our daily existence.
FB Yes, you paint that. Not the person. You look at the painting and you know that something is gone.
DC Right. It was never an intention. I just followed the thread—I followed my feelings.
FB And with the sculpture?
DC It’s funny, because the sculpture has mostly been about portraiture. When I first started painting, I had a conscious thought not to paint the body. My first few paintings were photorealist, and there were subjects that I think I decided to stay away from, you know? The first sculpture I made was My Friend Dash’s Wall in the Future , which in a way is a portrait—so even when I was still avoiding the figure itself, the sculpture was already very much about portraiture. And as I made more and more sculpture, I think it was an opportunity for me to start bringing the human form back into the work. Portraiture and the body have become consistent themes in my work outside of painting, but I don’t think it offers any less loneliness or absence or loss. It becomes a different way to consider it.
FB There is nostalgia, there is absence, and there is also a certain decadence and decay in your work. I’m thinking about the Stud paintings [2010–16], or the dog and the cigarettes [The Long Count, 2014].
DC Yeah. Often people look at my work in terms of high and low, and I think that really comes out of things like the Gum paintings and the Stud paintings, but my interest is more in what we think of as meaningful and what we think of as nonmeaningful. With the Gum paintings [2006–16], the original intention was basically to take this thing that had no meaning, or seemingly no meaning, and try to put it in a context where it becomes nostalgic, as opposed to becoming garbage. I started out using the gum in very base ways, like how you’d stick it under a desk or step on it on the street or blow a bubble—decay is central to the ideas and the material. As the series progressed, the works aspired to grander modes of application; they began presenting themselves using the language of abstraction, and became very decadent.
I was able to see this all more clearly while making the Stud paintings. From the outset, I recognized they were about decadence and decay—the materials, concepts, and process all aligned to explore just this. Today studs appear on teenagers’ cellphone cases or on luxury goods like purses and shoes. They’ve been appropriated and reappropriated over and over again. Throughout American history, studs have been used by different groups of people in hopes that this decorative element could represent a certain ethos. I was thinking of Native American cultures, cowboys, outlaws, punks . . . There are commonalities, but the original meaning inevitably degrades over time.
I became really interested in this idea of meaning eroding. How do you take meaning away from something by moving it into another context? And was the relationship between the meaning and the object ever really that potent if it’s that easily dissolved or decayed? Meaning seems to come and go—it is forever shifting. Trying to associate it with anything material will always fail us.
FB I never thought of your work as being about high and low. Actually, I think it’s more about identity, in the sense that we have an identity, but then our life continues and we are stuck in the same identity.
DC Yeah. It’s a struggle—trying to be ourselves in any given moment, to be able to share our ever-changing selves.
FB So which kind of identity are you talking about when you’re talking in your work?
DC I try to use clichés to tap into a shared experience. There’s a tension—I fight against a desire to explore feelings I’m having as if they are unique to me. I’m attempting to consider identity in more universal ways. But, as an artist, I understand that to share an artwork is an opportunity to share myself. And so I see the search for who I am and the search that is my creative process as one and the same.
FB Tell me a little bit about the cowboy performances you presented in Beverly Hills the year before last.
DC For me, as I get comfortable in any kind of craft or process or technology, I like to move on to something different and go into a space where I feel a little less comfortable, a little more susceptible to failure and exhaustion and insecurity, and explore that space. Trying to express my feeling not through a painting or a sculpture or an object, but through another human being, is something that has been exciting me for the last few years—taking out all the layers of mediation. I love the opportunity to have an idea, and instead of using paint or wood or a computer to help me realize it, the idea can instead go directly from the mind to the body.
The cowboy pieces [Carry On Cowboy and At Least They Died Together, 2018] were a way to explore the idea of a body falling, a body dying, a body failing. Doing it in real time, in real space, was something that interested me, as did the challenge of trying to explore my ideas in this new context. I worked with a choreographer, Dimitri Chamblas, on that piece. Choreography is limited in the same way that painting is, right? But it is also boundless in the same way painting is. I wanted to explore that relationship. When I think of painting, I think of the brushmarks that make it, which are a series of gestures; the same is true of choreography.
FB More and more you seem to be incorporating a performative element into your exhibitions, no? Is that to stretch the limitation of painting or because you want to add something—
DC I’m interested in hearing about your relationship to this, too, because a lot of the shows that you’ve put together have incorporated performative elements. I’d be curious to hear why that is for you, as somebody who also has so much faith in painting. For me, as a painter, there was always a bit of an insecurity that I couldn’t represent all of what I wanted to, that I couldn’t touch my audience in the way that I wanted to through painting alone. But it’s less a lack of faith in painting than it is an acknowledgment that it’s really hard to look at a painting for as long as you need to. For a painting to have the impact that it potentially can, you really need to give it a lot of time. That potential is always there, but I don’t want to always depend on the audience choosing that relationship to the work. Sometimes I want to look at paintings in that way; at other times I am unable to, and I can only give them some of the time they deserve. Which brings us back to time. I want to explore these different modes of presentation and representation to allow the audience different ways to navigate time.
FB I agree. A performative element also defines the symbolic space of painting. And that’s maybe why, in exhibitions, there is a need to balance these two things.
It’s interesting that you talk about insecurity, exhaustion, and failure. You seem to be attracted by these three elements more than anything else: your characters look exhausted, the sculpture of the big flag has a sense of failure . . . In the cowboy performance, I felt all these elements.
Also with the Desert paintings [2015–19]—there’s this element in the Hollywood western and the notion of the West that’s so heroic, but at the same time, also so depressing. Many of your works sound or even look like a silent scream for help . . . Do you feel helpless in front of the work or in front of reality? Are the HELP paintings [2019–20], which show a message in a bottle in crashing waves, the manifestation of this feeling? Or just a graphic fascination with such a simple and yet terrible word?
Failure and progress are bound in my practice through this idea of help.Dan Colen
DC [Laughs] Yes . . . a terrible word. As an artist, but also just as an average human, asking for help is something I instinctually resist, but it’s something that must happen, inevitably. And often it offers me my greatest discoveries.
Help can be about failure just as much as progress, about moments of desperation just as much as charity. It can be about letting go of old ideas and at the same time learning from our past. Failure and progress are bound in my practice through this idea of help. We typically don’t share failure, right? We don’t congregate to consider or analyze our failure; we only congregate to share our successes and to celebrate. But we all experience it. Many of our heroes have experienced failure, and many things that we once saw as heroic become idiotic over time. Like the cowboy: What good is this white gunslinging tough guy in 2020? He’s lost all of his appeal. But we still can’t help the fact that he was presented as a hero at a different time, you know? I’m really interested in that transformation of meaning.
I also think failure, and even loss and death, are great partners for comedy, which I’m always trying to explore in my work. There is sometimes this sense of the artist as a hero. And I think the artist wants to believe that. But that idea seems absurd to me. The artist is an artist. That’s fine. It’s not a bad thing to be. But I’m not as convinced as I always was that in 2020 there’s anything heroic about being an artist. Maybe there’s something heroic about being a doctor, a nurse, or a firefighter. But yeah, it seems ridiculous to think of the artist as a hero.
Artwork © Dan Colen