Jeff Keen, Works from the 1960s + 1970s, review by Nickolas Calabrese
It is by now a totally institutional practice of saving praise for largely undervalued video artists until only after they are dead. There may be good reasons for this - I couldn’t say - but these reasons go out the window when one sees some fine work of a great unknown and posits: ‘Where the hell have you been’’ Maybe the ever increasing availability of old film and video works on the internet will be indicative of a trend changer. Maybe living artists that have been unspoken of for decades will suddenly pop back to life (in a few senses of the word). But probably not. Let’s not kid ourselves; artists past a certain age must step aside for the new generation to move in and make their names known. It is almost impossible for an artist to stake a claim on more than a couple of decades considering the rapid output of fresh MFAs on the market. When one considers the manifold of ever new and ever young artists, the fact that Jeff Keen (a highly singular British artist who mainly works in film and video) should receive a solo retrospective before he has expired is a wonderfully regressive, confusing, and delightful event. Even though he was born way back in 1923 (baby steps), his work remains young and glam-anarchic even exhibited in today’s digitized climate.
Keen’s slightly small and slightly disorganized mini-retrospective at Elizabeth Dee Gallery is actually pretty refreshing despite its half-century age. The gallery obviates his more recent work in favor of the works that would have sealed his importance decades ago, and this is definitely a good thing. This is his first solo show in America despite being an active painter and film/video artist since the 1940s. But any time is the right time when it’s the first time for an artist matching Keen’s prolific output. His work is an almost definite winner with audience’s too - modest nudity, fun violence, spray-paint, repetition, anti-everything, cartoony, and strung out distortion soundtracks palpitate throughout all of his works. The Elizabeth Dee press release for the show emphasizes this retroactive edginess too: ‘Utilizing a frequency of speed not found in work of the period, Keen, through the possibilities of the medium, brought new life to the significance of radical visual media.’
The selection of works in the show could certainly have used a little more care. Upon entering the gallery in the first room to the right there is a group of drawings made from the 40s and 50s that are utterly devoid of Keen’s style, and are really just half-assed attempts at making replications of work that was popular the decade before. It is in the largest room where Keen’s paintings are shown that the audience starts to get a taste of who Keen really is. They are funny paintings too. They have a tongue in cheek approach to hard times, echoing the hippie comix of the era, only they are plaintively more anti-x than the straightforward underground comic artists of the 60s. There are lots of stencils, sprayed-on paint, slogans from his time-based works (Rayday, Blatz, Dr. Gaz, etc.), and a general spirit of movement. There are two paintings from 1968 that irreverently say ‘CUT BACK TO 1962’ in a totally unemotional way, but still somehow become intelligible through their desperate pleading for a reversal of the fizzled end to the 60s. These acrylic works on board are a great introduction to his films that animate all of the static motion that is found in the paintings.
The real reason to see the exhibition is the group of Keen’s films from the 60s and 70s that are on continuous view. Running all day everyday are Flik Flak (1964/65, 3 mins), Cineblatz (1967, 3 mins), White Lite (1968, 3 mins), Marvo Movie (1967, 5 mins), Meatdaze (1968, 5 mins), Rayday Film (1968-1970 & 1976, 13 mins), White Dust (1970-1972, 33 mins),‘and Mad Love (1972-1978, 42 mins). These are certainly all of his most famous films, and they are arguably his most entertaining and engaging. It is a shame that they are in a smallish backroom with only one bench since they really are the show-stealer. They are what he is best known for, and they are what he has striven to perfect over the course of his career. The paintings are merely a byproduct of Keen’s films - an accumulation of experience for Keen and his troupe of actors. His actors liven up the films beyond what mere animation and film alteration could do alone. The regulars that Keen employs (friends, family, and acquaintances) seem willing to do anything in the name of his visions. In most films we at least find Jeff and his wife Jackie (very free and usually joyfully nude) with their daughter Stella armed with the camera much of the time. The rapid pace and total destruction of each film lends a feeling of impermanence and giddy riotousness. But with this first large-scale exposure in the US, Keen’s works are surely on their way to being cemented in the canon of invaluable moving image forefathers.