Stephen Keene is a strange character: he identifies much more with the archetype of the worker than the artist. Known for his amazing ability to produce masses of work, and for the very cheap price of his art, Keene embraces a protestant work ethic that borders on the extreme -- ten years ago, during his first show for the Santa Monica Museum of Art, he painted half a mile's worth of paintings in an exhibition aptly titled "Miracle Half-Mile."
Last week, the SMMoA invited Keene back for a week-long residency and performance, during which he painted hundreds of paintings every day, with each painting typically selling for under $100.
He worked around a giant wooden frame set up outside the museum that supported dozens of squares of plywood (they function as very sturdy canvases). Photos or images to be copied were taped up over each row of canvases. Keene moved from one painting to the next with paintbrush and bucket in hand, adding the same line or gesture to each piece.
His technique yielded a strange result: a row of paintings that were made assembly-line style, but didn't quite look identical. Nor did they really look different; a splash here or a thicker line there differentiated the pieces ever so slightly. Funnily enough, people still stood in front of them for minutes, deciding which one they liked best.
The paintings were slapped together -- some funny (a crowd favorite was an abstracted version of the 405 with minimal traffic, subtitled Friday Night Daydream), all relatively simple and colorful. The paintings were crude, but what lent them charm was knowing how they'd been produced: in an extravagant display of energy and panache, without caring too much about the end result.
Keene was paint-splattered and working tirelessly underneath the sun. At some point he turned to painting modular furniture, intended to furnish a new outdoor space for the museum ("I've got a day and a half and I've got all this stuff to do..."). Without taking a break, he explained his predilection for mass-producing art.
"I went to art school and everything, but I always admired how musicians have to do what they do -- be in a band for two weeks, and always be on for their shows. That requires an incredible amount of faith and hard work. Regular art-making seemed lacking in that. Plus, I was never really that good of an artist, so I thought, if I'm not that good, I can at least do a million of them. Maybe it'll hide from my weakness," Keene said, rapidly daubing benches with green leaves.
When it reviewed "Miracle Half-Mile" in 2000, the L.A. Times was quick to point out the shifting artistic ground that Keene stands on: he so obviously links art-making to commerce that the entire performance becomes an ironic commentary on the life of the struggling artist and the overpriced art game that dominates today's market.
But even that analysis seems too high-level when compared to Keene's basic desire to just keep churning away. He compares his work to food -- it's something to buy, consume and enjoy, without much thought needed. "I make something that people can purchase, that's inexpensive, and if they get tired of it, they leave it in the apartment when they move, or something like that. I mean, I'd like to have people love my pictures and keep them forever, but I want them to be more informal objects in the world," he says.
Keene's approach to the art world is correspondingly informal as well. Though he lives in Brooklyn, he's not particularly involved with the New York art scene, which doesn't really cater to artists like him. Instead, he's particularly popular in California, as well as Germany, and is on a trip to Australia this week.
He inhabits his own art world, and is an advocate of shifting one's artistic paradigms: "It always does surprise me how people are so obsessed with good or bad. People are trapped in different systems. I don't think of what I do in that way."
Avoiding terms like 'good' or 'bad' art lets Keene bypass the fact that he's just not a very good artist. Yet it's obvious that he does have significant creative strengths, even if those don't lie in traditional ways of art-making. "I have a different opinion. I do enjoy that this is a performance that others don't do," he adds.
Though he cites Rauschenberg as an influence (collaging tendencies acknowledged), Keene continues to situate himself outside the art world in his influences. "I like architecture right now better than art. There's two guys, L.A. architects [Benjamin Ball and Gaston Nogues, of Ball-Nogues] who make art objects. They're the ones who did that silver ball thing on the side of the mall downtown [he's referring to Cradle, a structure on the side of a Gehry-designed Santa Monica parking lot]. They make artworks that are a combination between sculpture and architecture. I like that kind of thing -- it's a sculpture, but it becomes an event. For me, I'm a painter, but this has become an event. It's something that is full service."
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His residency was definitely full-service, as he got more and more paint-splattered throughout the week. As a straightforward man of few words, the only service he refused to perform was to talk about his art to customers ("I'm doing everything except carrying the painting to your house, so why do I have to talk?" he adds with characteristic cranky irony).
As Keene grew silent again, tirelessly painting rows of purple flowers onto benches, his motto seemed to be, keep on truckin' and don't get blindsided. He let slip a pithy final remark: "I know very little about the art world. That's why I'm still an artist."
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