Broadway 1602

Jeff Keen

14 Jan - 28 Feb 2012

© Jeff Keen
Facade is cracking, drawings from the 1950's
14 January – 28 February, 2012

We are pleased to announce our participation in the first major exhibition in New York of British artist Jeff Keen (b. 1923, UK). We are presenting a group of drawings from the 1950s, ephemera and objects from the context of Keen’s experimental filmmaking and archival exhibits such as photographs, post cards, prints and magazines, documenting Keen’s exuberant and quintessentially situationist form of production and creation.

This project takes place in collaboration with Elizabeth Dee gallery, where a central presentation of Keen’s film work and his paintings from the 1960s and 70s is on view at the same time.

Jeff Keen worked for five decades as underground filmmaker in Britain embracing the idea of expanded cinema. He was one of the central participants of the London Filmmakers Co-op in the 1960s. Keen engaged deeply with Pop (and later Punk) imagery, a critique on American consumerism, and with the visual milieu of comic books and the Beat era. At the same time a strong influence comes from his existential experiences as a soldier surviving World War II. A new lingo fusing war trauma with the realities of the Cold War era and the thread of the atomic bomb migrate through Keen’s work to this day. “Dr. Gaz” (Keen’s original ‘mad scientist’ alter ego), “Blatzom” (evoking the war term ‘Blitz’), “Omozap” (a play on the word ‘homo sapiens’) and “The Plasticator” (a Terminator style art assassin), feature prominently in Keen’s world of dark curiosities. Other martial sounding notions such of “Ray Day” (a futuristic version of Mayday or D-Day) and “White Dust” (with a hint to nuclear disaster) and “Art War Fall Out” (printed on a photo showing Keen and his comrade soldiers sitting on an army tank) migrate through film titles, self made copy-art magazines, posters and on his paintings. Some of the objects on show, which were used as film props, are deliberately designed to look like being in a state of decay and destruction. A little book just holding together by a rough self-made binding has pages that were burned on the edges and then covered in resin. In his films Keen often burns found or roughly patched up obscure objects in front of the camera.

The earlier drawings and collages from the 1950s in this show speak still a more subtle language. Their style owes much to the aesthetic of Art Brut, late Surrealism in an interesting British variant anticipating the social focus of the ‘Kitchen Sink’ movement.
Keen had joined the Communist Party while in the army and he had a great interest in Russian films and literature. In 1947 he started a Commercial Art course at Chelsea College of Art & Design in London. In this period he explored the possibilities of drawing and collage. His work is initially influenced by the English Romantic artists such as David Jones and Graham Sutherland, paralleled by an interest in the work of the Latin American Surrealists Wilfredo Lam and Roberto Matta. Experiencing the realities of post-war London, Keen begins to depict scenes of social deprivation, particularly with regard to the youth. “Children bringing Home Firewood” (1950) shows two boys and a dog in a state of human deformation getting close to the grotesque creatures in “Monsters Eating People” from the same year. The small cartoon “Nutrex limited” (1950) sketches a scene of three children seemingly under the effect malnutrition. The dark colored drawing “Big Man” (1949) depicts a group of people with exaggerated Picassoesk features on a dismal community ground, while the romantic figuration of the “Boy Chasing the Sun” (1949) is situated in an equally miserable surrounding of dead trees, drifting debris and neglected back yards. A street sign above the head of an elderly woman standing in an angry inward pose against a brick wall mysteriously reads “NEW R”.
In his collages “Figure Defying a Flag” and “Lulu” (both 1950) Keen used newspaper clippings of shocking populist content to intensify the Dadaist absurdity of his works. In the first collage a headline reads: “VD, Syphilis, Gonorrhoea – and baby?” and in “Lulu” a whole columns of clippings announces such dingy and dark realities as “Lord Vivian wanted a pure woman”, “WE ROBBED FOR THE LOVE OF LULU, THEY SAY”, “DEATH DUST”, “Go Home and Leave Lorelei”, “FAÇADE IS CRACKING”. A red arrow points to the cartoony sketch of a voluptuous nude woman with a confident smile on her lips reminding us of the notorious femme fatale Lulu in Franks Wedekind’s drama “Pandora’s Box” (1904).

These rare works on paper by Jeff Keen reveal the foundation of his radically experimental oeuvre in a deeply socially engaged neo-Dadaist and Surrealist practice.

Tags: Roberto Matta