Thursday, June 22, 2006


With Over 170,000 Works Sold, the Creative Process is the Product for Painter Steve Keene

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).

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Voice of a Wolf

Josephine Foster eschews weird Americana for European avant-garde

Amidst the landscape of the “new weird America” Josephine Foster is a stranger in a strange land. Not only does the graceful and baroque range of her latest release, A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing eschew any folk leanings to embrace a European avant-garde sensibility, but the recording is sung entirely in German. This approach is an extraordinary change of pace for the normally autumnal, bittersweet tones of Foster’s previous offerings. Prior recordings, such as Born Heller and Hazel Eyes, I will Lead You paint a picture of Foster as a singer / songwriter who’s prone to fits of lovelorn balladry driven by a folk-song siren voice. Many a critic has compared her powerful, female vocal mantras and strident personality to Jefferson Airplane frontwoman Grace Slick. “The whole alchemy of rock/folk and the earthy/transcendental in some of Jefferson Airplane's best songs did have a strong effect on me, like “White Rabbit,” she offers as one example. “But at the same time I was getting into Debussy.”

With A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing (Locust Music), Foster explores her interests in the fringe areas surrounding classical music of the late 19th and early 20th century. Her enduring voice evokes the spirits of female singers spanning artists from the 1920’s to present, touching on everyone from Lotte Lenya to Coco Rosie.

Go ask Barbara
Deflecting comparisons to avant-garde folkies, Vashti Bunyan and Devendra Banhart, Foster points out Barbara Streisand’s album, Classical Barbara – a record she heard at the age of 15 – that introduced her to classical music. Streisand’s record offers a version of composer Hugo Wolf’s “Verschweigene Liebe,” a song which Foster offers her own take on A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing as an homage to Streisand.

On paper, an affair such as this can come off as seeming somewhat pretentious, but Foster gingerly admits that she approached the project seeking out nothing more than fun, exuberance and to take a chance on doing something a little differently.

The Chicago-based Colorado native first began writing songs at the age of 15, and began making her own bedroom recordings with a 4-Track around 2000.

The seven songs that make up A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing are what Foster calls “kuntslieder,” or art songs. Each number was originally written by highbrow European composers of the 19th century who set music to poems by equally highbrow poets of their day. “Some are pretty familiar to classical musicians, some less so,” she continues. “I think there is an untapped wealth of incredible songs that are just going stale in the ivory tower. Some of them are my favorites, and it was by chance in other choices.”

What big teeth you have…
With a voice that draws to mind the passion of Marlena Dietrich and the fairy tale glow of Snow White, Foster exudes timelessness. Weaving through Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s dialogue in his original German language, set to a twinkling and nocturnal arrangement of Franz Schubert’s composition in “Der König in Thule,” the drifting pace of Foster’s words is enchanting. A slowly plucked electric guitar wraps around various stringed instruments that could have been present at the time of the original composition with captivating ease. Through a pair of headphones a low rumble of what sounds like large trucks passing by on the street below are barely audible, suggesting something of a low fidelity feel. But never do any makeshift imperfections impede upon the sound quality. Rather, the spaciousness and angelic ring of “Verschwiegne Liebe” and “Die Schwestern” swell with multilayered clarity.
As the latter piece unfolds the once celestial qualities of the music take a turn toward the dark side as the shadow of fuzz, distortion and echoes envelope Foster’s crooning. The drone of traffic that once seemed to have been caught by accident now bulges to reveal something sinister stirring inside the music.

Without warning a sound that was once beautiful and benign explodes into a dark and cluttered storm of noise in “Auf einer Burg.” Foster’s voice carry’s on with the same alluring qualities she has possessed from the beginning. But as the scope of the music unfolds a previously unseen meaning in the album’s title, A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing comes into view. Most Westerners can’t follow any coherent dialogue in these songs simply because of the language barrier. But an intuitive range of beauty and dreaminess lulls listeners into a false sense of safety before Foster reveals the wolf’s teeth.

It also serves as no small metaphor that the recording opens with a rendition of the composer Hugo Wolf’s “An die Musik” dressed in a more relaxed presentation than how classical music is usually performed. The exactitude and note-to-note, consonant-to-consonant obsessions of the typical classical music singer are made deceptively sweet and inviting. “The songs are so beautiful,” says Foster. “I had an intuitive sense of them and I just wanted to present them simply and take inspiration from the moment in terms of arrangements, which were largely improvised right on the spot.”

In light of this she maintains that there is no overall theme to the songs. “They all have a time-transcendent quality to me. Most of these songs I learned between ages of 16-18. No research, they’re just some of my favorite chestnuts.”

--Chad Radford (Published by Flagpole Magazine, May 2006.)