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Seeing Ourselves in Greg Colson’s Quirky Pie Chart Paintings 

Greg Colson is part of the unenviable group artists who are unclassifiable and are often overlooked. This is due to his long-standing interest and fascination with systems and categories. He knows that the United States, despite its claims of democracy and other world countries, finds ways to maintain certain hierarchies. A painter and sculptor who makes what Donald Judd called “specific objects” out of found materials, he has long been preoccupied with the ways society visually defines and organizes reality. He has created street maps from strips of discarded wood, and used a tennis ball to represent a planet within our solar system. He has created and painted pie charts to identify and measure the common components of our collective anxiety. 

Colson’s work has been a culmination of his passion for accuracy and sensitivity to waste. Colson’s meticulous approach to abandoned objects combines care and compassion with a touch of pathos. I recall thinking that his works represented a conflict between wanting and being able to scream, and how he managed to keep his grief under check. These were acts of mourning in an environment where mass murder is commonplace, and citizens are often numbed to public expressions of feelings. What I admire about him is that — sensing how hopeless our current situation might actually be — he still refuses to offer viewers a visual distraction or placebo.

His current solo exhibition, Greg Colson: Snap Shot at the National Arts Club (January 7–January 28, 2022) — his first in many years in New York — includes eight works: five circular “Pie Charts” painted on cut sections of wood and three studies on paper. Although the works on paper might be studies for paintings, I don’t think of them as preliminary. They have a complete quality. The circle is a good support symbol because it suggests that we are going around in circles and getting nowhere. However, the fact that they are made of sections that fit together indicates that change is possible. 

As the titles indicate, the subjects include reasons for “Unfriending” (2011), “Top Concerns of Midterm Voters (study)” (2022), and “Leading British Phobias” (2011). This selection shows that opinions about any topic matter to someone. The works, which date back to 1998 and 2022 respectively, show the role that pie charts (or surveys), play in our daily lives. “Purse Essentials (Study)” (2022) refers to a survey on what people consider essential objects to be contained in a purse. According to Colson’s chart, lip balm, gum/mints, cellphone, pain reliever, hairbrush, tissues, ATM card, cash, and credit cards are considered indispensable. “Other items women specify as the most essential to carry in their purse” are “sunglasses, tampons, and condoms.” 

Greg Colson, “Top Concerns of Midterm Voters (study)” (2022), enamel, acrylic, pencil, ink, collage, and tape on paper, 14 inches x 11 inches

Colson was smart to leave out the purpose behind this survey for viewers to wonder about. Was it for surveillance, marketing, or something else? What can we learn from it? How can we align with the different sections of our purses? Are all purse owners predictable? Do those who don’t fit in count at all? For all their apparent inclusivity, pie charts are really ways to cull the populace and exclude those who do not contribute to the survey, similar to the art world’s use of, as well as reliance on, surveys. I’ve never considered pie charts as a method of defining a club.

Rendered in a straightforward, documentary style, complete with graphic signs and changing typefaces, Colson’s pie charts can be funny, perverse, and unsettling, all while inducing alternating waves of laughter and despair. Looking at “Leading British Phobias” (2011), viewers learn that a large percentage of the British populace has a phobia about “spiders,” “clowns,” and “needles.” Among the other fears cited, Colson lists “dentistry, driving, and heights.” Taken together, these sound like the key ingredients to an Alfred Hitchcock film. 

Whenever I look at one of Colson’s pie charts, I feel like I learn something and nothing at the same time, and I don’t feel assuaged when I should. That’s why I find them fascinating. They are a sign of a curiosity that can’t be satisfied. According to the painting “America’s Biggest Problem” (1998), a significant number of participants identify “crime,” lack of morals,” “national debt,” “politicians,” “drugs,” “homelessness,” “economy,” “schools,” and “environment.” Who decided the categories? What would it look like if the survey was conducted today? What does the pie chart tell us about ourselves? Will they encourage us to change? One of the underlying effects of Colson’s “Pie Chart” paintings is that he prompts viewers to think about the responses and what theirs might be.

Colson’s droll paintings present the pie chart as a useful monitor of a group’s behavior, while also revealing it to be exclusionary and superficial, a way of underscoring differences of opinion while cancelling the importance of divergence. The individual is regarded only as part of a larger group, suggesting that “individualism” is an obsolete model, and maybe nothing more than a quaint idea. Andy Warhol famously declared that the meaning was all in the surface of his work, and that “There’s nothing behind it.” He wanted badly to belong. Greg Colson suggests that we don’t want to know what’s teeming in our psyche, both collectively and individually. He has never been focused on belonging. 

Greg Colson, “Unfriending” (2011), acrylic and pencil on wood and hardboard panels, 47 inches diameter
Greg Colson, “Sustainable Apparel (study)” (2012), enamel, oil, acrylic, pencil, ink, collage, and tape on paper, 14 inches x 11 inches

Greg Colson: Snap Shot The National Arts Club (15 Gramercy Park South Gramercy Park Manhattan, Manhattan) continues to be open through January 28. The gallery organized the exhibition.

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