One holiday season long ago, when the record industry still dealt in physical objects, the independent publicity firm Girlie Action sent us music journalists a unique spiff: a brightly colored piece of 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 tucked between and beside the characters. The next year (1998), they sent me a portrait of Loretta Lynn by the same artist. It seemed awfully generous, but then I learned the artist only charged $5, so the cost was not much more than a T-shirt, a coffee mug or any such mass-produced form of swag.
Outsider art had already earned some indie rock (itself a form of outsider art) cred thanks to Howard Finster, the prolific Alabaman who was embraced by R.E.M. and Talking Heads, so this enthusiasm-over-technique arrival fit right in. Some time later (a birthday present, maybe), I received an eight-inch square depiction of Richard (truncated to “RICK” for space) Hell’s Blank Generation album cover, crude but convincing, and subsequently came into possession of a larger piece, signed “SK 01,” labeled “Them Again” and bearing only the faintest resemblance to the cover of the third album by Van Morrison’s Belfast band of the mid-‘60s. Clearly, accommodations to time, space and implements had been made.
Now, I’m no collector of art (although I do own a semi-valuable painting of a cat by folk artist Vestie Davis, which I purchased as a teenager for a dollar at a tag sale), but I immediately appreciated the fact that these wooden renderings were cheap, durable, easy to hang and charmingly rough, just like the music they celebrated. Impressionist in the same way a punk band might blast through a mainstream pop hit, only minus the irony. They felt utilitarian, low-pressure, almost disposable, which undercut any instinctive feelings – and I mean this in a good sense – I had about the value of art. The last time we moved houses, I put up two of them in my record room.
Other pieces by the same mystery character hung in friends’ houses, clubs and hip record stores. His work was ubiquitous in the indie rock circles I frequented, but I never made any effort to learn more about the prolific artist and even failed to notice that he’d also executed actual LP covers for Pavement (Wowee Zowee), the Silver Jews (The Arizona Record), the Klezmatics (Wonder Wheel) and the Apples in Stereo (several), among others.
I make no defense for my lack of curiosity, but all was revealed thanks to a recent chance encounter with an acquaintance at a Saturday afternoon concert.
Daniel Efram spent six years assembling, Kickstarting and publishing The Steve Keene Art Book (Hat & Beard/Tractor Beam), a joyous monument to the Virginia native (now based in Brooklyn) who he claims, with scant fear of contradiction, to be the most prolific American painter of all time. So, I wondered, what’s Keene, who is now in his 60s, done in a lifetime of speed art, like 5,000 panels? 10 thousand? 20? According to the artist, the census of his unique, hand-made (most complete with a twisted wire for easy hanging on a nail) currently stands at an inconceivable 300,000! How can that be?
From the book’s lead essay by Karen Loew: “Five or six days a week, Keene goes into what he calls the cage, a room made of tall chain-link fence, filled with only the essentials—paint, brushes, wood—and paints for eight hours or more. It’s physical work, cutting plywood, attaching the hanging wires, securing the boards to outsize easels, pouring paint, and walking round and round painting…For multiples of the same image, he works from the larger color fields and broader brushstrokes down to the details and finer strokes. Horizontal strokes first, then vertical ones. He works out the scheme 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 plywood into manageable sizes, each roughly the same size.
Step 2: Sand edges for easier handling and exchange.
Step 3: Set up wood panels on easels.
Step 4: Select source image.
Step 5: Select color palette.
Step 6: Envision image solution to be painted.
Step 7: Deconstruct envisioned image into brushstroke units.
Step 8: Apply brushstrokes to build image solutions, from large to small.
Step 9: Select text options.
Step 10: Apply text to pictures, and sign paintings.
In addition to essays and an interview with the artist, the 264-page, 12×12” hardcover ($95, financing available) offers reproductions of 277 paintings. There are original album covers, copies of his album covers, a diverse, alphabetically arranged selection of his countless cover versions (lots of Beatles, Bowie, Guided by Voices and Pavement), landscapes, still-lifes, buildings, portraits, presidents and much more, all vividly alive with color and energy. Some pages display four versions of the same image, remarkable in their similarity, fascinating in their differences. (None of the ones I own are represented; there will have to be a second volume.)
Keene’s art challenges the senses as well as some of modern art’s foundational concepts. For one thing, when has an art book been more expensive than any of the art it depicts? He’s not collectible in any practical sense, and his productivity and commitment to affordability erases any investment potential. The only reason to own a Keene painting is to enjoy it. And anyone can do that. Like indie rock, Keene has overthrown barriers, making the purchase of art as accessible as mail-ordering a record. While anyone with pocket change can own an original Keene, there’s no potential for self-importance to its possession. Intentions aside, no Soviet realism was ever this populist in effect.
That populism has lately resulted in unprecedented popularity. Steve Keene is having a moment: the front page of his website announces, “Thank you for liking my work. I am unable to take any more orders for the moment.”