MUSIC FOR THE MASSES
An assembly line aesthetic has long been the antithesis of individuality in artistic creativity. For New York City painter Steve Keene, however, producing upwards of 100 matching paintings each and every day is all part of a distinct vision. Comparing his work to the jagged, folk art qualities of Howard Fenster and the repetitive nature of Andy Warhol’s pop art isn’t off base, but isn’t accurate either. Keene is quick to claim both artists as major influences, but dismissing his style as overly derivative neglects the imagination poured into his work. Avoiding the trappings of political and religious overtones and sidestepping flashy demeanor, Keene’s paintings are primitive tokens of a rhythmic mind.
Working quietly from his bare-bones garage-turned-living space between the boundaries of Brooklyn’s ultra-trendy Williamsburg and not-yet diluted Greenpoint neighborhoods Keene is a singularly industrious generator of paintings. A graduate from Yale University with a degree in painting and print making, he recreates a medley of album cover art, rock memorabilia and random images pulled from newspapers. Keene’s catalogue includes a smattering of unruly paintings of cats, bottles watches, cowboys and so on, but it’s his music-related paintings that have resonated profoundly with both critics and connoisseurs of his work. Keene’s paintings have appeared as graphic art in Palace Bros. ads, and cover art for indie rock icons, including Pavement’s third full-length Wowee Zowee and the Apples in Stereo’s debut Fun Trick Noise Maker (Elephant 6). Primitive renditions of cover art by everyone from Aphex Twin to Sonic Youth to the Smiths to Michael Jackson, as well as painted wooden cut-outs of the Ramones have all brandished his trademark “SK” signature. And though he’s never tried his hand at being a musician it is a musician’s lifestyle after which Keene’s existence as an artist is modeled. “I’ve been surrounded by musicians for most of my life,” says Keene. “When you’re in a band that’s touring you have your crate with 500 CDs in it and you try to sell 20 or so at each show. Then you get in your van and drive for 7 hours to the next gig and try to do it again. It was this kind of approach that I was incorporating early on. I wanted to find a way to make selling my paintings as fun and accessible as selling CDs.”
The seed for Keene’s approach sprang from his time spent as a college radio DJ at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA. Between the years 1987 and 1993 Keene and future wife Star, spun records at the college’s radio station 91.1FM/WTJU from 2 a.m. until 6 a.m. In an era predating the mass marketing of CDs Keene was buried in mountains of album cover art. It was while spinning records at WTJU that he also made the acquaintance of members of the band Pavement.
In time he was invited out to his friends’ bands shows, and while doubling as the merchandise man he started setting up and selling his paintings for only a few dollars, alongside the bands’ t-shirts, CDs, records and stickers. “I was doing a lot of stuff for bands back in the early ‘90s,” he explains. “I was going out four nights a week and selling my art in clubs and I got to meet a lot of people. I was like the groupie who painted a million pictures for the bands and I really felt like I was participating in the dialogue of the music.”
A decade later, Keene has relocated to New York where he lives with his wife, two daughters Flora and Minnie and barking dogs Suzy and Jane. The plain white exterior garage door and lone American Flag placed unassumingly on the front are prosaic distractions from the activities taking place within. Inside, looking more like an industrial warehouse facility than a home, Keene’s studio is cluttered with large brown bins filled with scraps of wood, saw horses and plastic tarps partitioning off separate work spaces. At the center of it all is ground zero. A fenced off 12’ by 20’ riser envelopes Keene’s work space. Flanked by towering walls affixed with dozens of identically half-painted plywood canvases, splatters and smears of red, white, yellow and blue paint coat the area, Keene’s person not withstanding. Moving across a lop-sided row of paintings, he applies swathes of one color at a time. Blue, then red and then another color follows suit until all are completed.
Equating each painting to a brick in a building, Keene explains that each individual picture is part of a larger whole. “Whenever I show my paintings it’s always from floor to ceiling, so the emphasis is always on quantity and to me quantity is quality,” he explains. “You make a product and try to put as much into it as possible and that’s the picture. When I fill a wall up with 2,200 pictures for me that’s one piece of art and each little part is a souvenir, a chunk. If someone wants to buy one for a couple of bucks they take that piece.”
The chicken wire fence surrounding the area is a stark contrast to the multi-colored innards of his studio, but the confinement is not only a necessity, it’s a luxury. “My painting area is completely fenced off mostly so the dogs and the kids can’t get in there and track through the paint,” he laughs. “When people see this big fenced off area they say ‘gosh, why would anyone want to be stuck in a big cage like that,’ but when I’m in there it really is great. The whole world is caged off from me. I don’t feel like I’m caged in. I feel like I’ve caged off everything else.”
For the last five years Keene has been taking his act on the road. Making appearances in Germany and Australia, and closer to home in Michigan, Texas and California and setting up for a few months at a time, usually on university campuses or similar environments. Live his approach takes on a performance art aesthetic.
Setting up canvases and painting in public spaces for 8-to-10 hours a day. “I’ve done it about 10 times. People will come and watch for an hour like I’m in a zoo and it isn’t easy to perform, which again is very much like a band,” Keene laughs. “It’s actually just like going to see someone play music for an hour and a half. It’s not easy playing music on a stage in front of 40 people and maybe 12 came to see you and the rest are there just drinking and hanging out while you’re trying your hardest until you have to drive somewhere and do it again.”
With such a crude and playful approach, harsh criticism from the art world has definitely come his way. Admittedly cutting through knee-jerk reactions to his style is a bit unsettling for him, but it’s also par for the course. “I’ll overhear people saying things, like ‘that guy paints so fast, why doesn’t he make one picture that’s really good instead of 1,000 that are really slapdash,’” he huffs. “That drives me crazy after a while. I should have developed a very thick skin about it by now, but at the same time it’s like complaining that cotton candy is not filet mignon. It is what it is and it’s meant to be this light hearted and interesting thing. You can look at it for 30 seconds or you can hang it up in your hallway and look at it for 8 years. It’s what you bring to it.”
In November of 2004 Keene began work on a new storefront/gallery space in a warehouse district just a few blocks from his home. Dubbed SKSK, a name he derived from both his and his wife’s initials, the new space is an inconspicuous shop nestled amongst dead storehouses and revived spaces now filled with burgeoning skateboard and fish tank businesses.
Positioned off of the beaten path, SKSK won’t be receiving a deluge of foot traffic, but Keene doesn’t mind. At this point in his career he has sold more than 170,000 paintings all for anywhere from $1 to $12 a piece. The business itself is a work of art and the clientele who go out of their way to visit the shop will be able to view the work in the shop as a whole. Seeing his work in full floor to ceiling majesty, and viewers being able to take a piece of it with them is just how Keene has always intended his work to be viewed. “I’m connected to the experience of doing what I do, but I’m not connected to the individual things that I’ve done,” claims Keene. “I take responsibility for them but I don’t have the normal artist/object relationship. The relationship I have with object making is in more of a fast food way. I’m an artist, but I also crave selling out, and I want the act of selling out to be the art.”
-- Chad Radford (Published by Art Papers. Jan/Feb 2005).