I was very curious to see this first major British show of former enfant terrible of the American art scene - Dan Colen, whose work never seems to take itself seriously, and gleefully references previous American artists and movements - specifically Pop. As with so many who have gone before him, over-indulging in the excesses and distractions of the big city, Colen seems to have got his act together, removing himself from said big city temptations, fully embraced the rural lifestyle, and as a result is enjoying a renewed focus on his work. The exhibition opens with Colen's huge installation - The Big Kahuna, impressive in both scale and ambition. Possibly a commentary on the realities of living in the Trump administration's America, and the critical gaze and opinions of observers from around the globe on that country.
The monumental sculpture was complimented by this kitschy painting of cherubs, and American blue-collar worker plaid in the same gallery. You are then confronted by these comical cartoonish holes punched into the gallery walls. Their significance is fully realised when you venture further into the gallery space and encounter popular art icons such as an animated 3-D Scooby Doo surrounded by arte povera references in empty wine bottles, cigarette stubs, and a huge studded canvas artwork.
The artwork in the first of the upstairs galleries is really strong, with more cartoon cut-outs incised into the walls, and this showing of what look like inflated/deflated glass Whoopee cushions on floors and chairs. Tread carefully! There are also some good, large abstract expressionist style action paintings full of colour and movement.
What I was really curious about and looking forward to seeing, was this signature Colen chewing gum painting. The colours and textures were really pleasing, and again paid homage to the work of the abstract expressionists, and were reminiscent of a stippled Seurat painting. I would love to know what certain abstract expressionist painters would have thought of this, and Colen's other chewing gum pieces.
As mentioned earlier, the playfulness of the exhibition was punctuated by these cartoon-style, cut out interventions breaking through the very fabric of the gallery walls. Damien Hirst must have had a lot of faith in Colen and his work to have allowed such a drastic intervention on the foundations of his gallery space. I thought they were great visual puns. They showed a real sense of daring and fun, and complimented the cartoon characters - Wil E. Coyote and Roger Rabbit - famous in animated cartoons for the very same slapstick shenanigans, who made guest appearances in the upper galleries (below).
The weakest element of the show are these slogan-type paintings (above). They seem quite crude, and unsophisticated in comparison to the other works and concepts on offer, and in contrast to the meticulous execution of those other pieces, in what is otherwise quite a strong exhibition. There is quite a realistic in-your-face sculpture of the the nude Colen, recumbent and proud in all his - semi-tumescent glory - in the last gallery, which amusingly goes some way to making up for the weaker paintings surrounding it. The show ends on a very funny high, however, with Shoes (2013-17), a pair of battered Nike trainers magically tap-dancing their way across the ceiling of the exit stairwell by themselves. They inspired a sense of awe, wonder, and laughter in me. You really need to experience this for yourself. Sweet Liberty is a very rewarding, playful exhibition.
Dan Colen: Sweet Liberty
until 21st January 2018
Newport Street Gallery