Review: Dan Colen, Newport Street Gallery ‘Uplifting and Immensely Enjoyable’

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Fifth show at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery – and it’s the fifth show in a row for White male artists. The exhibitions are largely drawn from Damien’s personal art collection – the Murderme collection – so make what you will of that lack of diversity. However, that aside, this survey of works by Dan Colen is uplifting, fun and with plenty of nods to many of the big names from contemporary art.

I’ve been in a bit of an in-out, love-hate relationship with the shows at Newport Street so far. Enjoyed John Hoyland, could have done without Koons. Loved Gavin Turk, don’t ever want to see Ashley Bickerton’s stuff again. The odd numbered shows seem to work with me so, duly in step, I enjoyed Dan Colen’s works immensely.

The exhibition opens with a big statement – a giant Stars and Stripes flag swamps the first gallery. Covered in rubble and dust, and crushed under the weight of a giant boulder. The influence of Arte Povera is obvious, as is Jasper Johns and the readymades, but in this, The Big Kahuna, 2010-17, Dan Colen is making his own big, bold eye-catching statement. It’s provocative, it in your face (you can understand why it appealed so much to Hirst) but it’s also a pretty pertinent statement on where we are right now. American artists have been exploring the other side of the American Dream for a while and this highly-Instagrammable piece fits in with that beautifully.

But if you’re thinking the rest of the galleries follow with further big, politically-charged works, think again. For Sweet Liberty – the name of this exhibition – spans the entirety of Dan’s fifteen-year career to-date, and his range of interests, subjects, emotional tone and media used is expansive.

 A sequence of cartoon-scapes flow through the galleries. Great chunks of some of the walls have been taken out. Gaping holes remain, shaped as if a cartoon character has smacked through it, Looney tunes style. Then you walk through only to find a hyper-realistic sculpture of a cartoon great, be it Wile E. Cayote or Roger Rabbit face down on the gallery floor. It’s fun; it makes you smile. And the influence of Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol is obvious.

Yet you’ll also find vast Anselm Kiefer-esque canvases too – Oh Madonna!, 2016, and Mama Mia!, 2016. Beautiful blends of watery blues and sea greens with splashes of salmon pinks and creams. Look a little closer and you’ll see discarded children’s’ boots, fish nets and tin buckets emerging from the depths. Perhaps it lacks the depth and complexity of Kiefer’s great works but there’s no doubting the nod to American artistic pioneers, Rauschenberg and Johns here too.

I did consider, as I wandered the galleries, whether this was all a case of great art-lite. After all, upstairs it’s easy to see the influence of Basquiat and street art in the graffitied canvases, though, arguably yet again, slogans such as ‘Holy Shit’ inverted and ‘No Sex No War No Me’ lack the political commentary and nuance of Basquiat’s more complex and more biting works. Maybe so. But that’s not to say there isn’t skill on display here.

I particularly enjoyed Colen’s glass work. His collection of broken wine bottles and cigarette stubs is excellent. I was fully aware of many walking past around me perhaps not realising that the fag ends were glass rather than the real thing. But the most exciting room is the gallery filled with chairs and glass balloons, all in various stages of deflation yet all in a glorious rainbow of colours. The sight is joyful and exciting.

There’s a quick reminder that you’re in a Damien Hirst gallery at the end with Colen’s hyper-realistic sculpture – a self-portrait in replica – which has been given a generously proportioned penis. It’s an eye-roll moment at the end of a good show. Colen described the piece as where “the bloated, spent machismo of the American Dream is laid bare to reveal a deep-seated existential unease.” Frankly, I think he’s kidding himself. But, hey, we are in Damien Hirst territory, after all.

Newport Street Gallery, London, to January 21, 2018
Admission free
Installation images by me.

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