“There needs to be a Johnny Appleseed of art, and there is and it’s Steve Keene.” – The Apples in stereo’s Robert Schneider*
Steve Keene may be the most productive artist of all time. The Williamsburg, Brooklyn based artist, with over 250,000 (two-hundred fifty thousand) pieces created to date, is perhaps the most mission-driven ever. Unproductive simply isn’t allowed into his world – it’s impractical. Creating pop art in such volume has forced him to utilize a space more resembling a manufacturing plant than an artist’s studio. A fenced in cage in the middle of his industrial living space is the office, his process is more Ford than Rembrandt. Primarily utilizing wood boards cut in small, medium and large sizes, Keene suspends these from the sides of the cage, often numbering as many as 40 at a time. Dipping his brush into the desired paint, often with a reference picture above his wood “canvas” for visual guidance, he fluidly moves through the rows of wood applying one color at a time to a handful of paintings before re-dipping or changing colors entirely and starting a new layer. There is little calculation here; the mission is quantity. The act of creating a voluminous output is as much his art as the final, finished painting.
I was first introduced to Keene’s work in the mid 1990’s at Soho’s infamous Threadwaxing Space. This gallery and event space, with its mission to be “an oasis of possibility for the visual and performing arts,” hosted many art sales by Keene, as well as exceptional art and music performances including Guided by Voices, Palace, Blonde Redhead, The Sea & Cake, and Giant Sand, amongst many, many others during its run. Since then, Keene has shown and sold his work in almost every conceivable space possible to him, from thrift store, to art fair, and even at the Santa Monica Museum of Modern Art.
Many will remember the Threadwaxing Space performances to be sonically challenged, packed, sweaty, but perhaps they will also remember Keene’s work displayed all over the walls. And, the honor system donation box allowed for patrons to leave the show with some of his inexpensive and quirky folk art. Upon first viewing, I immediately picked up a couple of pieces for ten bucks. Affordable, recognizable and fun, he painted famous album covers and presidential portraits, often served with a large side of humor. Perhaps his most famous works are on indie rock albums by Pavement, Silver Jews and The Apples in stereo. However, one of my favorites is a Richard Nixon portrait with the inscription “We saw Beck at Knitting Factory ’95.” (Check image gallery below)
As fate would have it, our paths crossed many times over the years. As a huge fan and collector, I would be fortunate enough to work with him on numerous occasions, including many music packaging projects: Threadwaxing Space Live: The Presidential Compilation ’93-94, several projects for The Apples in stereo, and most recently, The Klezmatic’s Grammy winning album Wonder Wheel, an album featuring previously unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics. For this album cover, Keene masterfully comped together the musicians and the American legend (all images available in the gallery below). It would turn out that he and Guthrie had a lot in common – Guthrie’s side gig was as a sign painter.
Keene’s new work utilizes a Computer Numerical Control router. This electronic shaping machine, recreates his Adobe Illustrator file perfectly and mechanically, following his theme of workman-like production and manufacturing. Keene then layers levels of color over the 3d planks of wood, often sized at 4′ x 8.’ Though he believes that this machine helps with efficiency, I can assure you that it is just a different route toward a very practical destination.
*Robert Schneider’s quote from FILTER Magazine “Primitive, Pop, Classical: The Art Action Of Steve Keene” Issue 54
Text by Dan Efram
Videography and the better photos in the gallery by Adam Cantor
Addtional Info Steve Keene’s Offical Website
Steve Keene On FaceBook
Gravitation Generator: Steve Keene Video
The LA Weekly
# # #