“I have a natural inclination towards using nostalgia as a creative prompt. I have always been interested in the power of cliché. But I still feel very connected to the idea that an artwork must be a reflection of my most individual self and an expression of my most intimate feelings. And so these Mother paintings allow me to explore that tension between the deeply personal and the universal.”
Dan Colen began his Mother series in 2013, using stills from animated Disney films as source imagery and translating their compositions into traditional oil-on-canvas paintings. When selecting images for the series, Colen is careful to choose illustrations that bear no recognizable traces of characters or narrative cues, instead focusing on stills that function as backdrops to the scene. Steeped in a melodrama communicated through light and the elements of landscape, the Mother series presents a selection of anonymous yet already known images against which viewers may project their individual responses. Expanded here to suggest the heroic and existential nature studies championed by the Romantics, Mother succinctly conflates multiple thematic binaries: nature and culture, light and dark, comfort and isolation.
Developing from the artist’s Candle series, the Mother paintings take landscape as their subject. In transmuting an animation still into a large-scale oil painting, Colen draws upon art-historical tradition, from Claude Lorrain to the German Romantics, the American Hudson River School, and Impressionism. “I’m always thinking,” he states, “about the artists that have impacted me, whether it’s Rembrandt or Richard Prince. The thing about Disney that interests me is they were able to create these images that you think you’ve seen, even if you haven’t. And so there’s a familiarity to all the imagery that I’m using, that I can at the same time really connect to personally.”
Whereas the source of the first Mother paintings was “Bambi” (1942), the present canvas is from a body of works inspired by another Disney classic: “Lady and the Tramp” (1955). Colen is intrigued by the ways in which this animated romance dramatizes differences in class and character between the canine protagonists through the film’s contrasting urban and suburban environments. “Mother” (2020) is staged at the edge of the wilderness, its dramatic use of light and high, sloping horizon line leading the viewer’s eye to the buildings of a city far in the distance.
Expanding a small animation cell into a monumentally scaled canvas, Colen was able to imbue “Mother” with painterly qualities that bring to the fore his mark-making and treatment of light. According to the artist, the process of painting “forces me to have to really invent the marks, invent the detail, invent the image quality.” The resulting composition in oil emphasizes Colen’s process and places the present work in the company of historical landscape painting, showing his deep study of that tradition.
Ultimately, “Mother” subsumes the narrative of its source into a drama of painted landscape and light. As Colen elucidates: “The tree is in shadow; it’s almost a silhouette. The road is in shadow, but the horizon is bright and vibrant, even if it feels it is fading: it is in fact glowing. And the hometown in the distance, this promise in the distance, is also bright, soft, and inviting. . . . for me the present painting at Lévy Gorvy really puts you on that precipice, on that edge. You still feel the threat of the darkness or the isolation, but there’s also the promise of comfort and security and community.” These are themes that are universal while also drawing upon the artist’s own life. In 2010, Colen moved from the urban environment of New York City to immerse himself in the agrarian spaces and annual cycles of a working farm upstate. For the artist, therefore, “Mother” offers a deeply personal response to the landscape tradition, drawing its meaning from both his own experience as well as pop culture and art history.