Long ago, during the holiday season, when the recording industry was still dealing with physical objects, independent advertising company Girlie Action sent us music journalists a unique spiff: a work of brightly colored original art painted on an eight by eleven inch piece of wood. . The one I received showed two figures holding guns (?) with the words “GIRLIE ACTION” at the top and “WE’RE IN CHARGE” at the bottom. The letters “SK” and the numbers “97” were placed between and beside the characters. The following year (1998), they sent me a portrait of Loretta Lynn by the same artist. That seemed awfully generous, but then I learned that the artist only charged $5, so the cost wasn’t much more than a mass-produced T-shirt, coffee mug, or other form of loot. .
Outsider art had already gained some credibility in indie rock (itself an outsider art form) thanks to Howard Finster, the prolific Alabaman who was adopted by REM and Talking Heads, so this arrival of enthusiasm on the technique is perfectly adapted. Some time later (a birthday present, perhaps) I received an eight inch square representation of Richard (truncated to “RICK” for space) Hell’s Blank Generation album cover, crude but convincing, and then took possession of a larger piece, signed “SK 01”, titled “Them Again” and bearing little resemblance to the cover of Van Morrison’s Belfast band’s third album in the mid-1990s. 60. Obviously, adaptations to time, space and tools had been made.
Now I’m not an art collector (although I do own a semi-precious painting of a cat by popular artist Vestie Davis, which I bought as a teenager for a dollar at a sale labels), but I immediately appreciated that these wooden renderings were cheap, durable, easy to hang, and deliciously rough, just like the music they celebrated. Impressionist in the same way a punk band might explode through a mainstream pop hit, but without the irony. They felt utilitarian, low-pressure, almost disposable, which undermined any gut feelings – and I mean this in a good way – I had about the value of art. Last time we moved, I set up two in my recording room.
Other tracks by the same mysterious character hung in friends’ houses, clubs and trendy record stores. His work was ubiquitous in the indie rock circles I frequented, but I never made an effort to find out more about the prolific artist and didn’t even notice that he performed some real cover art as well. LPs for Pavement (Wowee Zowee), Silver Jews (The Arizona Record), Klezmatics (Wonder Wheel), and Apples in Stereo (several), among others.
I’m not defending my lack of curiosity, but it all came to light thanks to a recent chance encounter with an acquaintance at a Saturday afternoon concert.
Daniel Efram spent six years assembling, launching and publishing The Steve Keene Art Book (Hat & Beard/Tractor Beam), a joyous monument to the Virginia native (now based in Brooklyn) he claims, with little fear of the contradiction, to be the most prolific American painter of all time. So, I wondered, what has Keene, now in his 60s, done in a life of fast art, like 5,000 panels? 10 miles? 20? According to the artist, the count of his unique, handmade creations (the most complete with twisted thread for easy hanging on a nail) currently amounts to an inconceivable 300,000! How is it possible ?
From the book’s main essay by Karen Loew: “Five or six days a week, Keene walks into what he calls the cage, a room made of a large chain-link fence, filled with only the bare essentials – paint, brushes, wood – and paints for eight hours or more. It’s physical labor, cutting plywood, attaching wire hangers, securing boards to oversized easels, pouring paint and walking around and around the painting… For multiples of the same image, he works from the wider fields of color and broader brushstrokes to detail and finer strokes. Horizontal strokes first, then vertical. He elaborates the sketch in his mind beforehand, much like the screen printing process he studied at Yale.
Another section of the book iterates the process in even more rigorous terms:
Step 1: Cut the plywood into manageable sizes, each roughly the same size.
Step 2: Sand the edges for easier handling and replacement.
Step 3: Install wooden panels on trestles.
Step 4: Select the source image.
Step 5: Select the color palette.
Step 6: Imagine the image solution to be painted.
Step 7: Deconstruct the intended image into brush stroke units.
Step 8: Apply brush strokes to create image solutions, from large to small.
Step 9: Select text options.
Step 10: Apply text to images and sign paintings.
Along with essays and an interview with the artist, the 264-page, 12×12-inch hardcover ($95, financing available) features reproductions of 277 paintings. There are original album covers, copies of his album covers, a diverse and alphabetized selection of his countless cover versions (lots of Beatles, Bowie, Guided by Voices and Pavement), landscapes, still lifes, buildings, portraits, chairs and more. plus, all vividly alive with color and energy. Some pages present four versions of the same image, remarkable for their similarity, fascinating for their differences. (None of those I own are represented; a second volume will be needed.)
Keene’s art challenges the senses as well as some of the fundamental concepts of modern art. For one thing, when has an art book been more expensive than any art it represents? It’s not collectible in any practical sense, and its productivity and commitment to affordability wipes out any investment potential. The only reason to own a Keene paint is to enjoy it. And anyone can do it. Like indie rock, Keene broke down barriers, making buying art as accessible as mail ordering a record. While anyone with pocket change can own an original Keene, there is no potential for personal significance to owning it. Intentions aside, no Soviet realism has ever been so populist.
This populism has recently translated into unprecedented popularity. Steve Keene has a moment: the front page of his website says, “Thank you for liking my work. I can’t take any more orders at this time.