The Verse’s Jake Francis tells us what he thought of Dan Colen’s Sweet Liberty at Newport Street Gallery, London.
Have you ever seen the infamous ‘One Beer’ episode of Tiny Toons? Since I’m asking this question rhetorically to a blank page, I’ll have to assume that the answer is no, so let me fill you in. Within this 1991 cartoon short, the baby-versions of Looney toon favourites (Buster, Plucky and Hampton) decide to try an alcoholic beverage – the unexpected act of this cartoon then progressing to slurred speech, grand theft auto, and the subsequent fatalities of all three characters who plummet of a cliff edge on the not-so-subtly named ‘Death Mountain’. With children and adults alike being horrified at the ramifications of these characters actions, the studio was subsequently fined and the episode permanently banned from public broadcast.
But why are you telling me this, Jake? What significance or relevance does this have to Dan Colen’s show Sweet Liberty? Well, we’ll get to that soon enough. Until then, let’s dabble in the usual artsy-fartsy, shall we?
Throughout Colen’s show, the theme of playful questioning is ripe for the picking – leaving no realm of culture – both ‘high’ and ‘low’ unsoiled. Despite his usage of cliche comedic tropes and the subsequent appropriation of pop-culture idols, there is an overwhelming presence of a nihilistic personality; updating the somewhat moth-balled ‘familiars’ with a sense of the wicked and the tantalising. With each piece, the viewer is pummelled with the realisation that, within this show, the gallery is the artist’s play-thing, regardless of the consequences that it may bring. This is especially prominent within his installation/art ‘trail’, Livin and Dyin (2012-13) where the structure of the gallery is quite literally ‘bashed’ not once, but several times – resembling the all-too-familiar cartoon outlines of the unfolding drama that left it. These ‘cut-outs’ that are inflicted on the gallery walls eventually lead you to an incomprehensible conclusion to the show; the audience confronted with a scene of Roger Rabbit, Wile E. Coyote and the Kool-aid man looking both perplexed and puzzled alongside a stark waxwork of a nude Colen. This lack of concern for the ‘traditional’ and institutional symbolism is made clear from the very start of the exhibition, the viewer being inevitably struck when entering the gallery by Colen’s work, The Big Kahuna (2010-17); an installation that offers an almost biblical ’wound’ upon the purest notion of patriotism – the American flag.
Dan Colen continues to keep his audience on its toes – not only offering images of ‘entertainment’ and controversy but also of highly polished skill. Whether it’s the Trash Paintings, Oh Madonna! Mama Mia! (2016) or the meticulously recreated oil canvases of common graffiti – as seen in No Sex, No War, No Me (2016), there is an identifiable artist’s hand to the mind that also offers such travesty. These two sides of the artist are perfectly married within Colen’s installation, Improv (2014-17) – a set of works that depict the tenuous no-mans-land between the ready-made and traditionalist artist technique; it seems rather fitting for Colen to balance this experience on the antithesis of juvenile pranks, the whoopee-cushion – it being a perfect metaphor for the cheap laugh, the indelicate wit, and deflation.
Overall, Sweet Liberty is an exhibition that leaves no rock unturned when it comes to ‘the over-stayed welcome’; Colen de-gentrifies the ‘chapel of arts’ – the gallery, into his own playground of the immature and pubescent intrigue in destruction. Colen’s exhibition, in many ways, is a personification of ‘One Beer.’ Not only does Colen offer a semi-animate Scooby-Doo who appears to be on the wrong side of tipsy, but the artist too represents the real-life destruction one can infer by using the once inoffensive and the puerile. What Colen seems to suggest, is that anything and everything is a weapon – both for expression and for actual damage.
Photos by Jake Francis