Brant Foundation

Art’s Bad Boy Dan Colen Is All Grown Up

Dan Colen’s antics in the early aughts solidified his place as one of art's legendary troublemakers. He has sobered up and moved upstate, but his work is still as edgy and provocative as ever.

Matteo Prandoni/

Few people can get away with the things that contemporary artist Dan Colen has. He’s thrown a wood plank through a restaurant window during a Visionaire magazine party and even lied about the existence of created works in order to exhibit with his friends at a group show in Paris. During the bad boy days of his nascent youth, Colen was just getting started as one of New York’s, if not the world’s, most promising artists. In the early 2000s, he—along with photographer Ryan McGinley and the late Dash Snow—were the legendary drunk, drugged out, and gritty vandals that defined New York’s downtown art scene.

Now 34, Colen, who grew up in New Jersey and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, has sobered up and settled down on a 40-acre farm in upstate New York, moving his TriBeCa studio to Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. While he knows the change in lifestyle will affect his work, it hasn’t kept him from having a momentums career complete with international gallery exhibitions and museum recognition.

His most recent exhibition, Help!, at The Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut, brings together seminal works from his past with new site specific pieces. Large-scale canvases covered in chewed gum and bird feces, a larger-than-life bird’s nest (inhabited by brightly colored canaries), and a massive curtain made from crack pipes fill the lower level, while confetti paintings and a bicycle chandelier occupy the top floor.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is “At Least They Died Together (After Dash),” a sculptural installation consisting of two upturned box trucks buried in the foundation’s pristine polo field. “When Peter Brant first approached me to do the show,” Colen said at the opening, “my immediate thought was how I would bring myself to [a polo field in Greenwich]. Dragging something from the city seemed like the obvious thing.” Buried halfway underground, the work has a duality of life and death—is it growing or is it a tomb? “I liked how it could have that simultaneous read.”

The sculpture gets its name from one of Colen’s earlier and most well known works, “Secrets and Cymbals, Smoke and Scissors (My Friend Dash’s Wall in the Future).” Filled with flyers, photographs, magazine articles, and sketches, the 9-by-10 foot “wall” is an exact replica of one that was in the apartment of Colen’s late friend and collaborator Dash Snow, who succumbed to a heroin addiction in 2009. Each individual piece is painted separately in Colen’s hyperrealist style. “At the time I really wanted to start making sculptures, so I started in this in between place…that was essentially a painting but in 3D.”

Colen slowly began to move away from his trademark hyperrealist technique to produce sculptures and abstract paintings. A collection of rock-like papier-mâché sculptures stands across from “Cymbals, Smoke and Scissors. Resting on word form bases draped with religious fabrics such as burqas and prayer shawls, each individual work is covered in graffiti, chewing gum, or bird poop.

For Colen, the wall was about a “place where people met, exchanged ideas, and made discoveries.” Much like the literal representation from “Cymbals, Smoke and Scissors,” the rock sculptures represent sponges for all of the experiences that happen around them.

“I think that becomes a big thing in my work—what is transferred into artworks or what is transferred into found materials—the things other people have put their experiences into.” This is apparent as Colen’s personal and shared experiences can be seen and felt within each individual work displayed.

Help! will be on display at The Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, CT until September.