The wildly prolit-in-residence this summer at the Brooklyn Public Library, Keene is energetically creating as many as 48 canvases a day on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays now through August 16.
Probably best known to the world as the man responsible for the cover art of Pavement’s legendary Wowee Zowee album, Keene has produced an estimated 250,000 works of art during his career. In the do-it-yourself (and sell-it-yourself) indie-rock heyday of the 1990s, Keene also created album art for Apples in Stereo, Silver Jews, and other bands. His canvases — actually paintings on plywood panels — could also be purchased at the merch tables when some of the bands toured. The hands-on experience for the customer, of being able to buy and walk away with something tangible that was representative of the event they’d just attended, became the informing principle in Keene’s art.
DINOSAUR talked with the affable artist about the art market — the intimate one he’s creating this summer at the Brooklyn Public Library as well as the larger world of galleries, dealers, and collectors — and what it means to actually experience art, and daily life, in the twenty-teens of the new century.
DINOSAUR: Let’s start with what you’re doing at the library on weekends this summer. You’re painting basically one color, and one brush stroke, at a time, on multiple canvases, on multiple easels as well, then switching colors and applying that, in single strokes, to each canvas, assembly-line style, until all the pieces are finished. Would you consider what you’re doing to be performance art?
Steve Keene: Oh, yeah, yeah. I think of myself as a piece of sculpture out there creating something when I paint. I’ve created these easels so they can move back and forth, and then back into the library after my session for the day is done. It’s almost like I’m a food-cart person selling stuff on the sidewalk.
You had previously compared your act of painting to the recording of a CD. The tangible item is not where the value is, but rather the value is in the performance that went into creating the music on the CD. So, with the emphasis on that value, and the emphasis on values in the art world now, how does your pricing of your performance compare? You have generally sold your works for about five dollars.
Yes, well, they’re a little bit more expensive at the library because they take a cut, so they’re ten bucks. I just considered that so many people want to buy something, so they buy a souvenir of the five minutes they spent staring at me working. It’s like buying a postcard.
Most of our experiences now are artificial. Everyone lives their lives on their computers, and I’m out there sweating, physically doing something. People are able to take something physical away from watching me.
I think maybe the only real physical thing we do anymore is go to restaurants. You buy some food, you eat it, and then you remember if the meal is good or bad. So that’s the way I think about it. I’m providing a performance and a service and a way for people to spend a few minutes of their time either watching me or purchasing something.
So, going along this line of thought, that one of the only real experiences we have now is sitting down and eating, how does the lasting memory of that dining experience compare with people watching you paint, and then being able to take away something physical from that?
In some ways, we’re not post-objects. Before everybody had a website, or before everybody was on Facebook, twenty years ago or so, if you were starting a band and you wanted to tell people you were playing some place, you put up flyers or you made a fanzine, and then you put it near the front door of the local bookstore or used clothes store. So the experience of making things and putting things places, that’s a big part of what I think about with all of this.
Now there are so many people making knickknacks and craft sorts of stuff, and people didn’t really do that twenty years ago. That was kind of an old lady thing, but now it’s a hipster sort of thing. Whether people know it or not, they have to have a relationship to something that is handmade. So much of art now, well, I’m not cutting down art that’s being made now, because I love photography and high production sculpture, but people are craving things that they know somebody made for them with their fingers.
Let’s go back to the earlier part of the conversation, when we were talking about the art market, which of course now, if you read artnet News, is more like the stock market, with regular stories on how much a painting or sculpture or work of art has sold for that week. What is your opinion of the way the art world is now about commodity?
There’s always been that, from people 500 years ago buying paintings to popes commissioning such and such a thing. Art has always been a status commodity. It has been. It always will be. All the art that we studied in art history, with the exception of the Post-Impressionists for a while, they just did their thing under the radar and then after they died they became fabulously wealthy. Most famous artists were wealthy during their life, and the most powerful, wealthy people bought that stuff.
People are sheepish, because every Monday morning we have to talk about the movie that made 100 million dollars. It’s the easiest thing to talk about, so we’re caught up in what things sell for. We’re surrounded by that.
Time magazine called you the “Assembly-Line Picasso,” because of the manner in which you turn out numerous paintings at a time. How do you compare the making of multiples with printmaking?
Well, I don’t think of it as printmaking. What I love about printmaking is that you don’t know what you’re going to get until the end, and when I mass-produce my pictures, I don’t know what they’re going to look like, either. I’m working on 48 at a time at the library, and I really don’t know what they look like until I put my final strokes on each one. I start off with the same color on each panel, and I keep on walking around the easels, so you never know what you’re going to get until the very end. I have a formula, I have a system, a sequence of mark-making, that’s very much like a craft. It’s very much like cooking. If I do something out of step, then I think my recipe is not going to work out. In making it sort of a system, you have to do certain things or you’re going to break the equipment or it’s not going to reproduce. That’s the way I think about it.
You have made three references to food now. First you compared what you do to ordering a menu item from someone who has prepared something on a food cart. Then you mentioned the experience of dining in a restaurant. And now you’ve referenced your painting formula as a recipe.
Yes. Well, we think we’re doing so much because we’re looking at other people’s photographs and stuff online. We’re living our lives on the computer on a daily basis. But if you’re eating something — or going in an airplane to someplace else — then you’re participating.
For the person who is making and serving the food, there’s also the instant gratification of seeing someone enjoying the meal they have created through their efforts.
I think that has something to do with why I kept on doing this forever. I had no intention that this was going to be my art career. But it seemed like it filled this little vacuum. I’m not a graffiti artist. I do see myself as a folk artist, kind of an aware folk artist. Somebody wrote about me and called me a conceptual folk artist, and I thought that was pretty great because I meant to drain a lot of stuff out of my art when I first got going with this twenty years ago. I just wanted my art to seem as straightforward as a trading card or a poster, something that people thought they needed to put in their bedrooms.
See Steve Keene in action, and purchase his art, outside the Brooklyn Public Library, weather permitting, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on August 1-2; August 7, 8, and 9; and August 14, 15, and 16.