A year has passed since I last went to Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall. The exhibition I went to see was Jeff Koons, whose work is always amusing to see. The third room of the gallery displayed his explicit Made in Heaven photography series, which I had never seen before. It was a good thing, because I had previously been to Jeff Koons exhibitions with my parents.
Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery opened just when I moved to London in 2015. I was keen to go, and liked the space very much on my first visit. Located on a quiet backstreet behind the train tracks, it appears more modest than it is. The vast rooms expose modern artworks splendidly, and leave you amazed, wondering how they placed the artworks inside the space. Like, how do you get a Jeff Koons balloon dog through the front door?
This time, I went to see American artist Dan Colen’s Sweet Liberty. Born in 1979 and active in New York, he is the bad boy of contemporary art. Shortly after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design in 2001, 9/11 happened, which influenced his early work. Amongst his friends at the time, the event incurred a thought of “are we losing our city… or building our city?”, and in turn, are we “losing or building ourselves?”. Reflection of identity is a recurring theme. The type of questions that seem banal but are equally discomforting. What are we, and what are we not, and what are we actually in relation to what we think we are?
Colen has no problem with portraying a crass image of modern America. The first room is crammed with The Big Kahuna, a crushed American flag on its pole, pulled from its root. The artwork is of an impressive scale. The sadness of the disordered flag is easily interpreted as portrait of Trump’s America in 2017. Big, messy, failing and not what it once was. Colen began working on The Big Kahuna in 2010. He saw it coming.
The next room is scattered with intricately made bottles and cigarette buts in glass. You smoke? You drink? Me too. Large canvases of splattered, multicolour wax follow, leading up to Pop my Cherry! A canvas covered with bright, chewed gum. There is a room of grafitti work, messages sprayed nice and clearly. No Sex No War No Me, Get High and Holy Shit, among others, represent the level of hysteria on the streets of a metropolis. Colen has New York in mind. I think of London and the grotesque masses of people moving up and down Oxford Street, running in and out of KFC and McDonalds, stuffing their face with empty calories, shopping at soulless tourist shops and Primark – for what purpose? It’s neither indulgent nor fun.
The chewing gum, silver studs, candy colours, smooth glass, Disney motifs and sheer size of Colen’s work is creative hedonism, it smiles while simultaneously squeezing the balls of American culture.