”Keen melted, burned and blew up objects around him to realise his art.... [He] revelled in a wild spirit of anarchic play, revealed a fascination with Surrealism and demonstrated true love for pop culture. ”
- Gallery guide
I thought I knew Jeff Keen.
After all, I'd been there. From the Eighties, up until his untimely death last summer, I'd attended his semi-regular series of gallery shows and film nights. He'd throw up works, crosses between action paintings and graffiti art, often on shaped pieces of cardboard or other extemporised materials. Like some irrepressible force of nature, he'd often churn these out during the event. Once I saw him drawing live on the screen while a film was still being shown.
These always felt like bright bursts of fresh air against the post-conceptual codswallop that normally passed for the Brighton arts scene. If the 'artwar' schtick, the day-glo bursts of popular culture sometimes seemed a little one-note, it was a good note.
As it turns out, I didn't know the half of it.
To see his earlier works was, to borrow one of his recurrent phrases, like discovering his Secret Origins. Pen-and-ink work from the Forties and Fifties, such as 'Agonised Figure in Landscape' (1949) are influenced by Surrealists such as Miro but put through an English filter, like Spike Milligan's Goonish doodles. They look spontaneous, automatic drawings, the framed pieces scarcely different from the open sketchbooks placed by them. Admittedly, those influences are a little too clear-cut for Keen to emerge as an original at this point. But patience, reader...
Poetry in Flames
As befits British culture, it was the Sixties and Seventies that brought colour to Keen's work. He seems to strike at the canvas with every weapon available - the graffitist's spray-can, Pollock's swirling trails of paint, the mass-producer's stencils and his own hand-lettering. Yet the superimposed images somehow never fell into clutter, were always impactful. Check out for example, 'Secret Origins 1' (1967, above). Through using these various media all at once, there's no clear distinction between Keen's paintings and his collages, such as 'Atomic Rayday' (below).
Ever-ambidextrous, Keen was also a surprisingly good cartoonist with a strong and effective line. A work like 'Laff' (1966, below) prefigures the bold iconic style later taken up by Kaz, Peter Bagge or Malcy Duff. It's pure comics – less a drawing than a cutaway map of a figure, displaying a tangle of vibrantly active but entirely imaginary body parts, a spaghetti junction of innards.
Now developing a distinct line, these days that seems the goal of every emerging alternative cartoonist. Yet, while excelling in this, Keen clearly also loves the commercially produced nature of comics. He reproduces the perfect outlines, the bold flat colours, so at odds with the human touch insisted upon by the art world. Commercial comics have a strange interaction between hand-made and mass-produced, perhaps best summed up by the perfect signature - such as Disney's elegant swirl, simultaneously handwriting and act of branding. Notably Keen imitates this in 'Jeff Keen Photoplay' (1972, below).
Yet, however much comic fans will find themselves propelled into his work, Keen was never likely to become a full-fledged comics artist. There's something always slightly off, slightly distorted about he way he takes up their language. And as so often in art, what is wrong comes out as what is right. He sometimes fixates upon the grammar of comics, dividing a work into panels, crossed with arrows and strewn with sound effects - such as 'Secret Origins 2' (1967, below).
The withholding of narrative throws emphasis on the formal elements, which are normally passed over by the reader - as unobserved as punctuation in a novel. Interestingly, this paralleled developments in the then-current world of underground comics, with artists like Victor Moscoso or the early art spiegelman. (Meanwhile, to pursue an earlier argument, an artist like Lichtenstein eliminates the grammar of comics the better to make them appear illiterate.)
And even when he uses characters, they work more like recurrent motifs. A work like 'Dr. Gaz' (below) reminds me of the home-made comics I churned out as a kid; characters ceaselessly invented and as-soon discarded, never quite lined up into storylines. In the best possible way, Keen never really grew up, he was always able to pull up pails from that bottomless well of imagination.
'A Mythic Universe'
Perhaps one of the key underpinnings of Keen's work is his omnivorous multi-media approach. When the show says “he combined film screenings with live performance and poetry,” 'combined' is key. He wasn't a painter and film-maker and zine producer and poet. Like his overlaid images and rapid-cut films you need to take them all together as components of a greater whole. You need to drink deep from Keen, not sip at him.
His paintings worked like posters to his films, his zines spin-offs, and they were often intended as precisely that. Like some one-man marketing campaign for his own imagination, he also produced objects from his characters, mid-way between promotional items and medieval saints relics, such as 'Vulvana's Fingernail' (1970).
In fact one of my few critiques of this show would be the way the films are largely segregated into a room at the end. Though this was probably down to practical limitations, it still doesn't seem in Keen's spirit and has led to me concentrating more than I should on his visual art here.
Yet one feature of his film work which should see mention is how much of it's actually video work. Of course low-budget film-makers everywhere soon migrated to more affordable video. But with Keen there's an extra element. If Modernism was about accentuating the form, finding what could uniquely be done in painting, sculpture or architecture and pursuing it, Keen pursued video - emphasising it's pixellated graininess, it's off colours. It looks simultaneously verite, video being the delivery medium of the news, and murkily otherly. It seems his primary approach was to try out whatever the manual told him not to, an approach programmers call (rather deliciously) 'video illegal'.
Above all, much like Blake, Keen had his own private mythology. And like Blake you would go mad before you gleaned any of it. Comics scribe Tim Pilcher and Keen's former assistant Damian Toal gave a talk at the Museum which unpicked some images and did manage to shed some light into Keen's mind. (For example, the way he associated airplanes with Apollo; look back to 'Secret Origins 1'.)
Yet you'd never get that on your own. You sense it's all there, in the same way something in your ear can discern that a foreign language has more structure than mere chatter. But foreign the language remains. Better to let those recurrent phrases linger with their irreducible mystery - “the breathless investigator”, “poetry in flames,” “the shorthand typist in the wilderness.”
Seemingly paradoxically, that non-approach might even take us closer to the heart of it. Keen was insistent his films should be paced too fast to follow. Having served in the war, he constantly used war motifs, such as rounds of staccato machine-gun-fire as soundtracks. Yet though seeing war might have informed his worldview, his 'artwar' wasn't a commentary on war or of media presentations of it. It was more based around the way we now live in a state of information war, and have learnt to exist among sense bombardments like soldiers in trenches. His art was both response and contributor to that ongoing war.
But mostly, in another reprised theme for this blog, the exhibition shows the sheer inadequacy of the term outsider art. The exhibition comments how Keen “distanced himself from existing movements in the London arts scene and the wider world of avant-garde cinema.” True, he was never an outsider artist in the formal sense, and even attended Art College! Yet his work has so many elements from what we assign to that category, such as the private mythology or tendency to work with the 'wrong' materials such as cardboard over canvas. The show describes him as “emphasising his role as a lone hero-warrior,” taking the two-fisted comics protagonists as avatars, self against surroundings.
It seems strange if not downright disrespectful to suggest someone's death might contain an upside, but at the same time it's retrospectives which tend to put the art world in gear. Keen's already had a film-showing at the Tate's Tanks, and there are rumours that this exhibition might go on to tour. Let's hope all this is a springboard to him becoming better-known. Shoot the wrx!