What do you get when you team up two of London and New York's most infamous former enfants terribles years and years after their provocative heyday in the early 2000s? Trash, used bubblegum, and a prosthetic phallus, as seen in Dan Colen's first major solo show in London when it opened this week at Newport Street Gallery, the private museum where Damien Hirst keeps his personal collection.
Yes, Hirst now has his own block-sized museum complete with a pharmacy-themed restaurant; it is, after all, about 30 years since he started taking over empty warehouses to showcase his fellow Young British Artists. (Hirst is so far past those days now that he can even shell out a reported £50 million for his own exhibitions—even when they already have support from the billionaire François Pinault.)
And while it's also been about 15 years since Colen, who now owns a farm and is represented by Gagosian, was one of the reigning bad boys of New York's art scene, the pair have clearly not moved on from their usual eye-catching tricks. Colen's latest exhibition spans 15 years of his work, which include his trash and gum series—a quick refresher: the former is made out of literal trash from the streets of New York, while the latter consists of chewed chewing gum applied to a canvas (and can be spotted in Ivanka Trump's art collection)—as well as his early photorealist paintings like Me, Jesus and the Children, which depicts Colen's bare chest.
But, true to the exhibition's title, "Sweet Liberty," things go much further than that. In the words of Newport Street, "Colen’s examinations of masculinity and individuality are brought to the fore"—quite literally, in the form of a life-size, generously proportioned replica of Colen himself sans clothing, but with an extraordinarily unobstructed view of his lower half. In other words, "the bloated, spent machismo of the American Dream is laid bare to reveal a deep-seated existential unease," which may be artist-speak for the uncomfortable fact that the opening's guests took in the sculpture alongside not just the artist himself, but also his parents and siblings.
The sculpture, Livin and Dyin, dates to 2012–13, but the show's other most eye-catching work is one from the present: The Big Kahuna, 2010–17, which greets visitors with a dirty, wrinkled, and twisted American flag hanging from a twisted flagpole, and a giant cement block atop it in the center. In relation to other works like a canvas spray-painted with the phrase "GET HIGH," and Livin and Dyin, The Big Kahuna feels more timely, and was an ambitious undertaking.
"It took a maniac to get it shown," Colen told ARTnews while gesturing to Hirst at the opening. For his part, Hirst mentioned that his own mother was also planning to come by the show, though he was "not sure what she’s going to think of it." It may have been for the best, then, that she missed the part when Colen got up to make a speech and told Francesco Bonami, the illustrious former curator of the Whitney Biennial and Venice Biennale, that he was "sure [his] dick is beautiful, also."
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