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Forget oils and acrylics – artist Dan Colen makes abstract paintings with gum

The faint smell of the carnival midway hits you as soon as you step through the front doors of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Follow your nose, Toucan Sam-style, past the Gerhard Richters and Willem de Koonings along the skinny entrance corridor, and the vaguely familiar odor intensifies.

Finally, when you find yourself face to face with one of Dan Colen’s riotous new artworks, now hanging in the gallery normally reserved for paintings by the great abstract expressionists of the 20th century, exactly what you’re smelling dawns on you: It’s bubblegum.

The exhibition, “Dan Colen: Shake the Elbow,” resulted from a visit to Colen’s studio in New York City from Albright-Knox director Janne Sirén last year. It features a group of paintings that, at first glance, seem right at home in the space dedicated to the drips and splatters of Jackson Pollock, the festering fever dreams of Gorky and the uncanny shapes and figures of de Kooning.

Colen first began using chewing gum in his paintings around 2008, inspired by the masticated globs of gum he’d find hidden under desks or on city sidewalks. Before he began buying industrial quantities of gum and heating it to precise temperatures with microwaves in his studio, Colen was simply attracted to its as association with “teenage delinquency.”

“These things are creations within boredom, creations within rebellion,” Colen said of the mini gum sculptures some terminally bored kid in detention or study hall might produce. “They’re things that nobody gets to see.”

But that simple idea eventually evolved into the group of paintings in this show, through countless experiments with different methods of heating and applying the gum. These ranged from chewing dozens of packs of gum himself, the result of which is the 2008 painting “Scrambled or Fried,” to boiling it in water or microwaving it to the consistency of molten lava and applying it to the canvas with such nontraditional tools as welding gloves, brooms, window screens and garbage cans.

Each of the resulting paintings, Colen said, contain a record of that process of experimentation. Some look like cracked and dried topographical maps of distant planets, others like three-dimensional Jackson Pollocks on steroids, and still others like the accidentally beautiful creations of some insane pastry chef.

Asked how his working process related to that of Pollock – whose canvases, like Colen’s larger pieces, lay flat on the floor as he splashed them with paint – Colen said the gum itself dictates the look of the final painting.

“If Pollock was throwing it, it kind of put him at the mercy of the material, right? The weight of it or the viscosity of it. You’d release it, and the most elementary qualities of the material would define the mark,” Colen said. “The gum paintings have always been about that to me. I’m only in so much control, so it’s really the material that defines the actual composition and the painting, because there’s only so many things that I can force it to do.”

Like the great abstract expressionists who preceded him, the unpredictable outcome of the artistic process itself is central to his work, rather than any overriding conceptual idea he had at the start. He’s often said that his goal with the series of paintings was to create “unpretentious abstraction,” and believes his selection of such a common but unexpected source material has allowed him to do that.

“My ideas really aren’t that great. I think that art is greater that humans, you know. And to access anything really inspired, you have to be open to finding it, not just imagining you can create it or you can make it up or you can even invent it,” he said. “I always assumed when I thought I’d make a painting that looks like the underside of a desk, that it would go somewhere. I just didn’t know where it would go. And I never thought that was actually that significant.”

Though the smell factor wasn’t part of his original design, he said, it has evolved into “almost the most important thing for me.”

“The smell is really important to me in the sense that the painting changes, that it kind of has a life to it,” Colen said, adding that he liked the idea that it was possible “to close your eyes and still experience the painting.”


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