New York

Dan Christensen

Is it merely “camp” to enjoy the latter-day production of a second-generation Color Field painter? Perhaps. In the case of Dan Christensen’s new work, one can easily tick off some of the salient points raised by Susan Sontag’s canonical essay of 1964. These paintings uphold artifice and stylization over beauty; in fact, they could serve as didactic examples of how to push devices meant to be seductive to the point where they actually become visually painful. They are indeed neutral with regard to the notion of content, almost as if the artist had set out to revise Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb in terms of passé playboy hedonism. And they elide judgment in terms of good versus bad—or even cultivated versus vulgar—taste; rather, they favor an esthetic delectation based on an almost purely quantitative love of intensity.

Before “graffiti” was even a gleam in the eye of people who would later give themselves names like Daze and Crash, Christensen was known for his use of the spray gun as a primary tool for paint application. With it he pushed the inherent tendency of Color Field painting to become an abstract or “technical” manifestation of Pop sensibility in an interestingly idiosyncratic direction. Some of his better-known earlier paintings featured piles of spray-painted loops, their dense overlappings graying the colors out into suggestive indeterminacy. These works were enticingly cool and absorptive, yet the rather unpleasant sense of gravity achieved by their imagery of accumulation belied the airy weightlessness promised by their technique—a disturbing effect only underscored by their subliminal resemblance to images of intestines.

An attraction/repulsion syndrome may already have been operative in that early work, but in Christensen’s new paintings it can be excruciating. Their textured, pearlescent grounds at first appear simply silvery, but are actually often made up of a fairly complex interweaving of colors not unrelated to the earlier work. Over these grounds Christensen has sprayed one, or more often two, circles or ellipses of searing color. The effect can be pretty much like staring at the sun too long. The tracts of acidic color, as intense as they are, do not register as direct perception but, rather, feel more like afterimages of something so radiant that one could not actually see it. The best of these paintings are either the most blindingly bright, or else the darkest, where it seems as though one’s retinas were already burning out. There are echoes of the sense of extreme experience that characterizes certain kinds of “spiritual” and psychedelic art—but without any sense of striving toward a metaphysical or otherwise transcendent realm. One is left with the exhilaration of an artificially heightened vision, but also the emptiness caused by the frustration of one’s need to find meaning in such an experience. But why complain? With a certain misguided brilliance, Christensen has managed to torment certain surface features of classic abstraction into a lurid aberration as dizzyingly frightful/seductive as Yma Sumac’s vocalism or Vincente Minnelli’s mise-en-scènes.

Barry Schwabsky