Keen works

It is always rewarding to come across an artist who has previously been completely off your radar. This was the case when Claire and I stumbled across Jeff Keen’s Shoot The WRX retrospective at Brighton Museum this weekend.

It was an exciting show, with a huge variety of different styles showcased throughout his works, (or WRX, the title referencing Keen’s love of cartoon strips). Without wanting to do the exhibition a disservice, I was immediately reminded of an art foundation course end of year show—the styles were so similar to a whole host of other artists that it was difficult not to see many of the outcomes as emulation, or of someone finding their own reference points through exploring those of others. In fact, as I walked among the projections, objects, paintings and sketchbooks on display, the variety was so great it seemed incredible that all of this was the work of one person.

Listing the similarities to other artists; Keith Haring, Basquiat, Kurt Schwitters, Rauschenberg, Picasso, Terry Gilliam, Futurist poetry, punk fanzines, Anselm Kiefer, Robert Crumb…  I noted that the one unifying voice among all of this was the sense of anarchy. In fact the tag line of ARTWAR that adorns many of his pieces suitably sums up his destruction of other’s visual signatures.

The Foundation show is an unkind tag, as Keen’s edit, maturity of application, and consistent sense of chaotic narrative, would rarely been seen at such a level. And much of the work was more than the emulation often displayed in such shows—this was someone in their element, the work vibrant and playful with an underscoring attitude, as opposed to students on a stepping stone to something else.

Keen moved to Brighton in the 1950s and steadfastly refused to leave, and it is unfortunate that he died in June of this year. The energy on display is truly inspirational, and the sheer eclecticism in both medium and approach amazes because in such a show, the sum of the parts becomes the whole. By the time you get to the last film, shown on the balcony opposite the tea room in the museum, it becomes entirely logical that this is the work of one man.

The show runs until 24 February 2013 at The Brighton and Hove Museum and Art Gallery, entry is free.

Jeff Keen’s obituary—The Guardian.

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