HIGH NOONDesert Paintings

Dan Colen formalist investigation: from Wile E. Coyote
and the Road Runner to John McCracken.

At Gagosian has inagurated an exhibition of Desert paintings by Dan Colen.
Colen’s early works were hyperrealistic paintings of lived-in interiors—a cluttered bathroom, a messy bedroom, a camping tent—that included supernatural or religious figures, including Jesus Christ, the ghost of his grandfather, and flying cartoon cherubim.
Over the last four years, Colen has returned to representational oil painting through more formalist investigations into the “materiality of color” and “the objecthood of paint.” Made alongside the Mother paintings, which explore notions of safety and fear, and the Purgatory paintings, which consider the sublime through abstract and cartoon references, the Desert paintings (2016–18) are lush yet schematic interpretations of stills from Chuck Jones’s animated shorts featuring Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. In the very first episode, Fast and Furry-ous, Coyote attempts to trick the Road Runner by painting a trompe l’oeil tunnel on the side of a cliff.
To Coyote’s astonishment, the bird runs right through the tunnel without breaking stride, yet when he attempts hot pursuit, Coyote slams into the rockface, unable to enter the space of his own painting. Eliminating the protagonists, Colen paints the tunnel from two different angles, as well as other scenes from the desert landscape in the cartoon. The paint is applied to the canvas with the bare minimum of oil, producing a variety of surfaces that emphasize the fundamental physical qualities of the material. Though based on found images, the canvases veer toward hard-edge abstraction, juxtaposing earthy and artificial tones while contrasting flat planes with perspectival or volumetric details, such as craggy rock formations and expressionistic shrubs. To underscore the three-dimensionality of the paintings, Colen chose to extend each image around the sides of the canvases, evoking the lacquered sculptures of John McCracken.