Steve Keene doesn’t have a typical artist’s studio — in fact, he calls his creative space in New York City a “cage.” Tall chain link fences act as a giant shared easel for up to fifty plywood canvases attached with wire. His paint-splattered floors are a testament to his brush-in-hand roaming from one end of the room to the other eight hours a day, almost every day. “It looks like I’m trapped,” says Keene, “but I’m really protected in my fortress.”
Keene’s massive oeuvre of more than 300,000 tracks dates back to a strike of creative inspiration he had 25 years ago when he volunteered to DJ for a University of Virginia nightly radio station. In Charlottesville, before Keene’s life was engulfed by painting, it was engulfed by music: “I was inspired by how musicians worked: how they performed and how small bands advertised themselves with cases full of cassettes, CDs and fanzines,” he says . “All of that got me excited to create something and bring it out into the world for people to share. These homemade ways of getting your name out were so interesting to me – I liked doing things ‘wrong’.” Keene, who studied printmaking at Yale, began painting between his dishwasher jobs, churning out strokes quickly and methodically made fifty pieces a day. For the artist, studying printmaking flowed directly into his new practice. “There are so many starts and ends, do’s and don’ts. Although I applied my printmaking principles, I was able to develop my own painting discipline.”
In the early ’90s, Keene taped his work to the walls of the Monsoon Cafe, a Thai restaurant in Charlottesville where he washed dishes, and local customers snatched them up to hang in their own rooms. The restaurant – and soon the entire college town – became an ever-changing gallery of Keene’s paintings. In 2017, the University of Virginia even included Keene’s paintings in an exhibit and book detailing the history of the two-century-old school in a hundred objects. After all, they had sated the community: prospective buyers, whether young college students or seasoned collectors, had trouble resisting the artist’s affordable five-dollar price tag. But money was never a big concern for Keene, who just wanted to earn enough to buy paint for the next series.
When Keene moved to New York City in the mid-1990s, it marked a return to the music world. As a DJ, Keene played tunes from the collection of ten thousand albums that surrounded him at the WTJU station in Charlottesville. When his creative work began, he was the one manufacturing these records. Musicians such as the Apples in Stereo, the Klezmatics, Silver Jews, Pavement and the Dave Matthews Band collaborated with the artist to create expressive, vibrant paintings for albums and posters, bringing his already hyper-accessible art to even more people. For a few bucks, indie rock fans across the country could have a band’s new release and a Steve Keene painting in her house.
For the painter, sharing his work with a wide community was as much a part of his creative process as lifting a brush. “Someone once told me that his parents had one of my paintings in their bedroom since they were born,” says Keene. “And that was my intention. Growing up in Virginia, my own parents had all these weird historical collectibles. I wanted my art to be like an American collectible.”
The newly released Steve Keene art book acts as the first-ever archive of Keene’s work. Produced by photographer Daniel Efram, the record-breaking monograph highlights more than three hundred works submitted from fans’ private collections, and includes essays by Charleston, South Carolina-born street artist Shepard Fairey and Virginia-born painter Ryan McGinness, and more . “Keene’s paintings are not precious commodities,” says Efram, “but they are freely traded jewelry passed around with love.”
Here, Keene shares more about his creative approach, his Virginia roots, and his Southern artistic influences.
The South has an art history as a community-building, collaborative process. How do you see your work in this tradition?
I’m interested in folk art and I like Howard Finster from Athens, Georgia. He was an artist and a clergyman. In the last twenty years of his life he had a vision. He said he had to draw Bible quotes, things like that, and he became very productive. He did an album cover for Talking Heads and REM even shot a video in his garden. Sam Mockbee is another one I admire. He taught architecture classes in Auburn. Using recycled materials, he built structures for impoverished communities.
I started selling my art cheaply; There’s something fun about public events where people can just show up. It’s going to be like a record sale or flea market. People who don’t have money can have my work. It’s like trading cards, something that people can pass on to others.
Thomas Jefferson, who is a strong cultural influence in Virginia, appears in your work. What draws you to these historical characters?
I’ve never been interested in history, but it was a way to process my heritage and it was a bridge to things my parents liked; They collected all kinds of collectibles. The historical portraits pay homage to her and her upbringing in Virginia and Charlottesville.
You compared your work to “diary entries”.
I see my work as a very personal job that I invented. My individual paintings are the remnants of my daily routine since I have been painting everyone Day. My style looks the same as it did thirty years ago, but I can see differences in when something was done, e.g. B. if I used thicker brushes or worked with more yellow. I used to paint my pets, but I try not to make pictures that I like more than others – when I do personal things I get sentimental. For me it is important to maintain consistency.
You sell a surprise package of six paintings on your website. How do you choose which six pictures to send to someone?
I try to make it different: I mix historical paintings with landscapes and portraits to give it a range. Nobody has complained yet and I have sent thousands of these packages. The idea of someone sending you money in the mail and not knowing what they’re getting is a special bond of trust.
How do you know when a painting is finished?
I’ve always worked in restaurants, so I was always pressed for time. I liked having time limits; it made me think differently and intuitively. I started a series of paintings in the morning and then had to go to work in the evening. They would have to be done within that time frame. It’s like working in a restaurant preparing something to go out into the world.