Welcome to the Wild, Wild West

Finding inspiration with Dan Colen, interviewed by Ryan McGinley.

Dan Colen, At Least They Died Together, 2018; Performance with Dan Colen and Dimitri Chamblas, 60 minutes. © Dan Colen. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photography Mike Selsky.

This article appears in the pages of V123: The New Hollywood Issue, available now. Order your copy at shop.vmagazine.com.

Before yeehaw culture struck, Dan Colen was finding inspiration in the trend’s cinematic roots, as seen in his Spaghetti Western-style performance art and High Noon painting series. Now out with a namesake book, the artist saddles up with childhood pal Ryan McGinley.

Ryan McGinley You had the idea [for what became High Noon] while on a road trip in 2003. This was the trip you went on with [late artist] Dash Snow?

Dan Colen Yeah, I was driving across [North America] and taking pictures with a Mamiya 4×5 camera that [photographer] David Sherry had taught me to use. I drove all over, all the way down to the [base] of Mexico. I’d sold my first few paintings, so I had a little bit of money, [but was still] camping out everywhere… In the winter! The first time I thought to paint landscapes was when I got back from that trip, in 2004.

RM Had you traveled before then, like as a kid?

DC No. There wasn’t much traveling when I was young, [so] television became the portal to other places in general. Also, growing up in New Jersey, I was always inspired by the Hudson Valley painters and [landscape masters like] Claude Lorrain.

RM Thinking about the Hudson Valley school of painters, those paintings have so much dimension. [By contrast], when I look at these desert paintings, they’re so flat. You bring them back to cartoons, [like] they’re 2-D.

DC I think these paintings allow me to explore that childhood experience of [watching] television—seeing this light projected out of the [screen], allowing you to get a glimmer into these other places. Cartoons, especially the ones created by Chuck Jones, became the places I was most interested in. Jones is [best known for] his Warner Bros. cartoons—Bugs Bunny, Looney Tunes. All of those shows were really important. With my artwork, I’m trying to allow the viewer to be challenged by how they interact with it, or whether they can interact with it [at all]; in the desert, everything feels infinite and unquantifiable. The desert paintings are life-size, which is really important. [These pieces] try to break down space more than any [of my] other paintings.

RM It’s interesting that you originally showed these works [at Gagosian’s] Beverly Hills [space]. They remind me of backdrops you would see on a Universal Studios lot.

DC I want them to function on a lot of levels. From a distance, they feel like a backdrop because they are a backdrop. Up close, I’m using the paint in a very specific way, in which I’m thinking about them more as objects rather than images. The material presence is very palpable. There’s a lot of grit to them even though there’s no texture. With these paintings, the light is absorbed into the surface. The paintings glow a bit and create this optical experience and it feels like there’s a fuzz. That fuzz is present in both the desert and in front of a TV screen, [creating] an atmosphere that, in a way, [feels like] evidence of the spirit world. Because of that, [the desert] is an amazing place to think of supernatural or spiritual experiences. I’ve gone on many road trips, and the desert is really what stands out; it’s such a wild place. And with the Wile E. Coyote landscapes, you kind of get transported. There’s this idea that you could be on Mars, but you’re just in this [natural] space.

RM After seeing one of your performance pieces [at Gagosian], At Least They Died Together, I was like, “Since I’ve known him for 20 years, let me think about this…” I thought of you dancing, and then I remembered you were a basketball player and a skateboarder when we were kids, which are very performative in a way. I thought, Dan was like the Tasmanian Devil, a dirt tornado. But he’s also Wile E. Coyote, breaking through walls. I was thinking of [how that related to] you working with [choreographer] Dimitri [Chamblas]. I love what you guys came up with—the idea of the cowboy dying.

DC The performance is meant to be sad and funny at the same time. I [had been] consider[ing] all the friends that we’ve lost. There are so many different ways to die… Can there be a euphoric experience? Can there be an excruciating experience?…I had conceived of [a few concepts] prior to meeting [Dimitri], but when we met, and I shared some of my ideas and what I’d been learning, he suggested we perform [what became] At Least They Died Together together.

RM Well, the title is a reference to a Dash Snow collage, right? It’s the one of the two men [holding on] for their life, nude, hanging from these rocks at the top of a waterfall. How did you and Dimitri come up with the [choreography]?

DC The choreography was made up of these ten ways to die, imagining elegance in the body through falling and dying. The ten prompts are: die forward, die backwards, die to the left, die to the right, die by one bullet, die by many bullets, die slow, die quick, die on your knees, and wither from pain on the ground. Part of the choreography was that we weren’t bound to each other’s movement, except for one rule: When the person decided to stand up from their last death, they couldn’t start dying until the other person stood up. So while I was playing dead, he would just be swatting flies and wiping the sweat off his brow. He was having to act bored, as a cowboy [would be] in the desert, waiting for nothing to happen.

RM The performance makes me think of that classic expression: If you fall down, you get back up. My favorite [part] is the dirt. Whenever I get to photograph someone, and we’re outside, I always tell the person to kick the dirt up because it creates this amazing atmosphere around them.

DC Right, it was really special. The whole gallery was just in a dust cloud…

RM What’s your favorite Western?

DC Growing up, [it was] Shane. It was something I [watched] with my dad.

RM I love that movie. I love it when the kid says, “Don’t go Shane. Come back!” That always brought a tear to my eye growing up.

DC With the paintings, it’s all about locating my experience [of] growing up. And then also my experience of getting older. Whether we’re talking about cartoons or television or the Arizona desert, [the question is], what do we do with all of the things that influenced us? [Especially] things that seem to have less of a [true] place in the world today [than before]. Something like a cowboy is definitely one of those things.


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