The Big Kahuna, 2010–17. Concrete, steel flagpole, paint, American flag, aluminum, plastic beads, and steel cable, dimensions variable. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates, © Dan Colen and Victor Mara Ltd.

I Am the Background: A Conversation with Dan Colen

Dan Colen, who applies himself to painting, placards, and sculpture with equal bravado, likens his approach to that of a child enthused first by one idea and then another. He explains his work as closer to a permanent condition than a series of disconnected objects. His explorations stem from a cavalier curiosity about what it is to be alive, and far from being preoccupied with a notion of beauty, he revels in the absurdity of being in and of the world. This, together with his appetite for unearthing emotions, results in works that celebrate the self-worth and self-loathing of our corrupted lives. Spurred by the same kind of mental terrorism that Robert Rauschenberg referred to when he said, “I go into my studio, and I think ‘Is this going to be it? Is this the end?’…When an artist loses that terror, he’s through,” Colen applies himself physically to his situation works, pinning steel studs to canvases until they can’t take the weight and riotously treading over a painting to impregnate its skin with dirt. Nor is he afraid to bury an American flag under a 35-ton block of concrete, surmounting the composition with a twisted and contorted flagpole. His continually morphing flights of fancy might fail, but that doesn’t matter. Colen is convinced that art is our reward for being alive.

Rajesh Punj: The scale of The Big Kahuna (2010–17) is epic. Could you explain how it managed to appear both site-specific and randomly thrown into London’s Newport Street Gallery for your exhibition “Sweet Liberty?”
Dan Colen:
It barely fit, so that, in and of itself, could be considered site-specific, but it can go anywhere. I started it in 2010, but I had never shown it in its fully realized state before, as it was intended to be seen. I was working on it for a show at the Astrup Fearnley Museum in Oslo, but the floor there couldn’t support the load. So, I made a study for it, with a 30-foot
pole instead of a 130-foot pole. In Oslo, it was a quarter of the size and a 16th of the weight. It carries such a different weight now—physically and metaphorically—and is such a different object. I originally thought of it as a self-portrait, and I still do. One of the things I love about art is that it is not static. Its meaning changes from person to person, from year to year, and I love getting to witness that, especially in such an extreme way.

RP: It is interesting to think that a work from 2010 could have a greater significance today. For me, this almost crippling work is clearly a metaphor for America right now. Has The Big Kahuna taken on a new narrative?
DC: I don’t feel like I control the interpretation and meaning of my work, so I see it as being able to engage aggressively with the culture and the times.

RP: On one level, it almost reads as the collapse of the country.
It is painfully appropriate; in a way, it’s a gauge of everything that all of us should be thinking about.

RP: Why choose a concrete block and the American flag?
Obviously, it is a blatantly aggressive gesture. I really tune into the awe of the piece, not just the depravity of what it is speaking of. There is something quite majestic about that concrete block being ripped out of the earth and given a second life. It is like you are pulling up a tomb. There are a couple of things that happened with this sculpture. I had been playing with background and foreground a lot, so there is a situation of the block being on the flag, obliterating the flag; but from a more formal standpoint, I am trying to skew the subject matter of the piece from one thing to another thing. In “Sweet Liberty,” The Big Kahuna was installed in the same room as Me, Jesus and the Children (2001–03), because they are both self-portraits and they are both ambiguous. In neither one am I clearly in the spotlight, and in Me, Jesus and the Children, I am the backdrop. In The Big Kahuna, the American flag is the backdrop, with the concrete on top of it.

Livin and Dyin, 2012–13. Silicone, silicone paint, dental acrylic, fiberglass, stainless steel, aluminum, vacuform plastic, pneumatic lifts, nylon tubing, human hair, urethane, and automotive paint, dimensions variable. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates, © Dan Colen, Courtesy Newport Street Gallery

RP: How do you see yourself in The Big Kahuna, or to put it another way, how is the work emblematic of you?
I played with illusionism throughout the show, but in many, many ways—for instance, trompe-l’œil painting. There is the question of what something is and how it has come to be, and then the opportunity to reconsider that after you are first introduced to a work. In a way, The Big Kahuna is a readymade. I was driving through the Catskills in upstate New York, and I saw a huge flag from the highway and found that it was coming from an RV dealership. There was a manufacturer’s sticker on the flagpole, so I called the number on the sticker and they sent one to me. It came with installation instructions that called for digging a hole in the ground 13 feet deep by 5 feet, and I did that. Then I broke it down and turned it into this shape, which took a lot of effort, a lot of creativity. It took a lot of craft and technical consideration. Just in terms of the base, I wanted to dig a hole and fill it with pure material. One of my interests is to take something dripping with content and implications and turn it into a pure form, into pure material. So, it’s saying, “There is an American flag back there, and what is in the foreground? A 35-ton block of concrete.”

RP: Did you seek to intervene as little as possible, or does that become impossible with a work of this scale?
It is a highly engineered thing, even though it is a readymade. Moving a 35-ton object doesn’t have any ready-made solution. My practice questions craft but loves to investigate it at the same time. The premise of the readymade is to call it in, which is what I did for the flagpole. But then I spent seven years trying to build it, and a year trying to move it. Where could I put it? I dragged it to a field in upstate New York and installed it there for a little bit, but it wasn’t like it is in the gallery. I designed it as an interior sculpture. The question is: Where does the art happen? Where does something turn into art? Is it putting it on the boat and taking it across the ocean? Is it a site-specific thing?

RP: Does location determine it becoming an artwork?
DC: It can, and it does sometimes. I think that is what I am interested in considering, though I am not sure that this work delivers the message. I could definitely see it in another space. I can modify it at any time, because it comes apart. But it didn’t have the impact outside that it has in an enclosed space.

Improv, 2014-17. Ash, white oak, cherry, hickory, and maple woods, stainless steel and brass hardware, rushing and caning and hand-blown glass, dimensions variable. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates, © Dan Colen and Victor Mara Ltd.

RP: You employ a wide range of mediums and materials to create diverse works. Is it important to allow for things to happen, rather than determining everything by design?
Yes, and it’s been a challenge for me to figure out how to present it in a way that viewers can digest it, because it is a lot to wrangle with. I had a hard time getting “Sweet Liberty,” which was pretty site-specific, as I wanted it, because I have always starved for many new kinds of things all at once. Prior to Untitled (Me and You) (2006–07), the first painting I made at art school, I had never considered photorealism, and I had never used an airbrush. To get everything right was a challenge, and it was like that here—to select the range of things that needed to be in a space, to paint the picture of the entire through-line of the work, I obviously had to make edits. I couldn’t show it all at once—I don’t think that would have helped at all. With this show, I felt like, for the first time, I was allowing viewers a real insight into what I do. People who didn’t know my work could come and understand everything I have ever done.

RP: Did you see this as a survey or even as an early-stage retrospective?
For somebody of my age, the word “survey” is a little more appropriate. I started in 2001, and it finished in 2017. Livin and Dyin (2012–13) was also fully realized here for the first time: elements of it were installed throughout the show, and it forms another self-portrait.

RP: Did you have a plan of the spaces well in advance?
DC: I worked on the show for two years, talking in depth with the gallery and making decisions with them. It was plenty of time in the making, and I wasn’t really working on anything else so I could deal with it. I saw it as an opportunity to do the thing that I have essentially been failing to pull off—creating a fuller spectrum for “an audience,” not “my audience.” Before, I hadn’t done as good a job of showing the full breadth of the work.

RP: Were you satisfied with how certain works were fully realized for the first time?
I couldn’t have done any better. For different reasons, my things are often not finished. I have done the cut-outs before but only through biennale walls. They were always meant to go through proper structural architecture and put themselves about in a permanent way.

RP: When I was looking over your work online, I was inundated with images of paintings. But it strikes me that painting is just one facet of your practice.
I think of myself as a medium-based artist, but everything I do comes out of my consideration of what it means to apply a stroke of paint to a canvas. There’s a chain of thought that comes out of me considering making paintings, which has brought me to this point. My work all comes out of putting a mark on the world.

Haiku (detail), 2015-17. Aluminum, foam, plastic, spandex, modacrylic hair, paint, stainless steel cable, and electronic motors, dimensions variable. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates, © Dan Colen and Victor Mara Ltd.

RP: You seem to have no fear about going from painting trash and oil canvases like Oh Madonna! (2016) to cutting into permanent walls, to playing with massive blocks of concrete. Do you have any boundaries to how you operate?
DC: I don’t have good boundaries. I don’t know if I have no fear, but I am not scared to fail. I respect the failures as much as I do the successes. “Sweet Liberty” was 15 years in the making, and I think that it was full of very successful pieces, but they would never have happened had I not been willing to fail—a lot of the work is evidence of the failure. The Big Kahuna is obviously about failure: the idea of actual experience and actual material, and content and ideas, leads to my shifting from foreground to background often. Is there a difference between something being a failure and something being about a failure? Is failure more interesting than a story about a failure?

RP: Rauschenberg believed that he found the greatest reward in failure. Perhaps what we decide to call “failure” isn’t necessarily the case?
We learn within the failure, within the growth—it’s called lessons. In terms of jumping between mediums and jumping into unknown spaces, I would rather my process be about an education than about hitting the bullseye. I would rather learn something than close my eyes and hit the right spot. I want to watch this stuff happen.

It is definitely process, and here again, The Big Kahuna is ambiguous: Is it process or about process? It looks like it is process, but then how the fuck does that get up there? You could barely bend this thing, the metal is so thick and so strong. It took so many machines, it blew the riggers away.

RP: “Sweet Liberty” defied a chronological approach. Is that how you work, thinking of a piece from the past while concentrating on something else in the present?
As much as I shift between things, I am always looking for a new way of expression, a new way to consider form. It often comes back to very simple things. Until that show, I was very unconscious of the themes in my work. But it came together. There’s the idea of my chest being the background in Me, Jesus and the Children or the flag in The Big Kahuna becoming the background—the link is the content becoming the background, something being on top of something else almost like the pedestal being on top of the sculpture. The sculpture is really about one thing being above another thing, about one thing controlling another thing. You lose a connection to what is controlling what, because they don’t share a sensibility; there is just a core so you stop believing in it.

Installation view of “Dan Colen: Sweet Liberty,” 2017–18. Newport Street Gallery, London. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates, © Dan Colen and Victor Mara Ltd.

RP: Your works seem to reflect our ungovernable energies rather than a flawless version of what it is to live. The seriousness of The Big Kahuna is immediately replaced by the satire of Haiku (2015–17). Do you want to induce multiple emotions as aesthetic positions?
DC: I can’t separate any of those things. Haiku is designed with springs and joints all set to allow for the dog to collapse. It doesn’t just fall, it falls in a particular way. All the mechanics and technology are contained within a circular container attached to the ceiling, which is a relatively simple construction. There are three motors, one that generates circular movement, one that has the dog going back and forth, and one that goes up and down. Sometimes they move separately, one at a time, but then all three motors can operate at the same time. Haiku was based on a simple program design in which I decided to use 5-7-5—a three-stanza machine, but the machine is meant to act like the text of a haiku, to give itself over to nature. The premise behind it is a blueprint for communicating with the natural world as a text-based thing. In a way, I see this mechanized thing—this hard, geometric, Minimalist thing—as instilling a breath or a lightness into the animated dog, giving a whole series of different emotions that allow it to move in one way or as part of a more complex cycle. I am really proud of how long it captures my interest. This is how I want comedy to function in my work—not in every piece, because a lot of pieces are very tragic, but I want them to hold comedy as well.