Dan Colen grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, but his whole family is from Brownsville, in Brooklyn, and you can hear a little of it in his vowels—a Jewish Mickey Rourke. Colen’s first studio was in his grandfather’s abandoned junk shop near Coney Island; his grandmother was once arrested for using slugs to try to get through a subway turnstile. (She tried to convince everyone they were Puerto Rican quarters.)
“When it comes down to it,” says McGinley, “Dash is wild, a wild kid. I have my moments. But for me, it’s always sort of about creating a fantasy. It’s like the life I wish that I was living. For Dash, it’s really the life.”
Colen’s most famous painting is called Secrets and Cymbals, Smoke and Scissors (My Friend Dash’s Wall in the Future), which is a three-dimensional painting of Snow’s wall with intricate renderings of all the headlines about police brutality and Saddam Hussein that Snow collects and tapes up, on a Styrofoam sculpture of a wall. When I am at his studio, Colen shows me one of his first art projects in high school: a series of magazine pictures of hip-hop stars on which he ejaculated. “I probably didn’t like the assignment,” he says and snorts. “Yeah, Dash stole jizzing from me, but I got to paint his wall.”
Colen caused a massive controversy in Berlin in September, when he and his friends put up flyers all over the city to publicize his show “No Me,” picturing Colen from the neck down, a tallith (Jewish prayer shawl) hanging from his erect penis. “As I tried to interpret it and explore my son’s psyche,” says Colen’s father, Sy, who has spent a good part of his life raising money for Israeli groups, “it seemed to me certainly the Holocaust is an event that he knows about; he knows that our family lost 25 relatives, and in a country that killed 6 million Jews, what Dan was saying was that this is our future. The penis for him, it’s something sacred. It is the staff of life.”
Sy Colen says he’s very grateful for all that McGinley has done to promote his son’s career. “When I was a kid and I went from Brooklyn to Manhattan, it was a big trip: Theirs is a different world.”
Snow brought his new girlfriend, Jade, to Sy Colen’s house for Thanksgiving. “Dash has long hair, but I’m accustomed to that. But it’s difficult to know who Dash is. You really have to work at it.”
If you were going to hate these guys, here’s how you would do it: You could hate them for using the word artist so frequently and so shamelessly. Or you could hate Snow for coming from money—mountains of it!—and being a cop-taunting, Saddam Hussein–fetishizing petty criminal. If you are an aging punk, you could hate Snow in particular for going over old ground and thinking it’s something new. (Iggy Pop puked on his audiences a long time ago.) Or you could hate all three of them for being so enamored with penises and what comes out of them. How much talent does it really take to come on the New York Post, anyway?
“But remember, they are at the phase in their career where they have to get people’s attention,” says Jack Walls. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next few years their work becomes shockingly sedate.” McGinley’s new show at TEAM gallery is all photographs of Morrissey concerts, for instance—fans’ faces hit with heavenly beams of stage light, aching with the orgasmic joy of idol worship. “See, that’s how Robert was able to get away with those flowers,” Walls continues, “because you’d see those and know all of what came before.” So when you looked at Mapplethorpe’s tulips, some flaccid, some erect, in the back of your mind you saw all the genitals he’d photographed; a serene cloud of baby’s breath invoked a spray of pubic hair, and suddenly you were thinking about perversion and propriety and society and all the while looking at a harmless black-and-white photograph of a flower.
Still, hating them has more advantages than respecting them. Because if you were to get caught up in the insanity and the creativity and the ridiculousness of their world, it could mean certain things. It could mean, for example, that it isn’t just that you were born at the wrong time. That maybe this city has still got it going on, antiseptic as it can seem. That the wild life is still out there for the taking, and the only difference between them and you is that they’re taking it and making something out of it.
But you can hate them if you want to: It’s easy. “I remember looking at the Whitney show and really resisting those photographs because of all the hype,” says McGinley’s gallerist, Jose Freire. “It would have been easy enough for him to continue what he was doing: I have my camera; I’m in this scene. But to see the work develop so much in such a short period of time … he seems so off-the-cuff, but it’s really surprising to discover he has incredible rigor. I don’t know if the scene he’s a part of is interested in that at all.”