Prolific Punkster

Steve Keene is a conceptual folk artist who enjoys taking jabs at the preciousness surrounding fine art

It used to be you couldn’t swing a cat in Charlottesville without hitting a Steve Keene painting. His slightly manic scenes of Charlottesville’s Belmont neighborhood, Venice’s piazzas, gaudy flower arrangements and condiment bottles were ubiquitous. Back then, he sold them for a buck. But things change and Keene moved on to Brooklyn, the Web and international fame. No surprise his prices went up, but not by much. Now, he charges $15 when you order online, but he always throws in a couple of extras because he’s just that kind of guy.

Keene’s studio is on a quiet street in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. A converted garage, it also houses space in the rear where Keene lives with his wife and two daughters. Keene laughs about the set up: “When I started, all I wanted was to have my studio where I lived; now, I wish we had a clean apartment to escape to after a full day’s work.” Keene is a workaholic, putting in five days a week and working until 2:00 a.m. or later on Saturdays. A boyish 53, he has an intense, wiry presence; you can sense the repressed energy pulsing through him and know, though it’s a Sunday and his day of rest, he’s itching to get back to work.

He refers to himself as a conceptual folk artist. His work is kind of outsider, but he’s a knowing participant. He has an MFA from Yale (VCU undergraduate) and while his work is a reaction, a “punk gesture” to the preciousness surrounding the “fine art” such an education promotes, Keene’s cerebral approach betrays the sophistication it also confers.

“I want buying my paintings to be like buying a CD,” he says. “It’s cheap, it’s art and it changes your life, but the object has no status. Musicians create something for the moment, something with no boundaries, and that kind of expansiveness is what I want to come across in my work.” His goal is to make edgy, accessible art that appeals to a broad demographic.

Talia Logan, Gallery Director at Roanoke College says, “I admire Steve for his talent, amazing work ethic and philosophy that everyone should be able to own artwork. I’ve been collecting Steve’s work since the early 90s. He was the first artist I thought of to exhibit at Olin Hall Galleries.”

Keene paints in a large cage of sorts, constructed of hurricane fencing. He has attached wood panels, now thick with paint drips and countless nails, along the inner side of the fencing. It’s all about maximizing painting surfaces; there’s also a two-sided wooden structure in the center, which folds and can be transported to one of the events he periodically conducts at galleries, universities and other venues around the world.

Before he begins painting, Keene hangs multiple plywood boards—his surface of choice—on the nails, completely covering the walls. He paints the same image simultaneously, moving down the rows assembly-line style and adding dabs of a particular paint color until he reaches the end. He then moves back to the beginning and, taking different colors, continues the process until the group is completed. Keene uses different sized boards overall, but sticks to the same size for any given series.

As for subject matter, with Keene the sky’s the limit. He’s inspired by everything from the prosaic (a row of beer cans) to the lofty (the Statue of Liberty). Typically, he produces 60-80 paintings a day, blowing through five gallons of latex and acrylic paint—“anything cheap,” he says—each week. “Just like washing dishes back at Eastern Standard [restaurant],” he says with a grin.

Keene’s profile is much higher these days. The New York Times, the L.A. Times and other publications have run stories about him. He’s worked with such musicians as the Dave Matthews Band, Soul Coughing and Pavement, among others, creating album art, stage sets and posters, and is the subject of Fresh Art Daily, an independent film screened at the 2004 Berlin Film Festival. Easily one of the most prolific artists of all time, Keene to date has sold more than 240,000 paintings. He signs and dates the works in an exuberant scrawl, sometimes including an enigmatic phrase such as “indemnity for you,” “gift shop” or “put a little extra.” He does this to distract you and slow you down, so that you’re not so quick to judge a work’s aesthetic merits.

For Keene, the act of painting is paramount. At work, he zones out, going into a kind of overdrive where conscious thought slips away and the painting becomes automatic. Once finished, he can’t wait to get the work out of the studio and begin anew. Fortunately, he does a brisk Internet business and paintings don’t hang around for long.

The artist is delighted with his new CNC wood router, a “midlife crisis” purchase, which allows him to produce wood cutouts from drawings made on a computer. He notes that this is a logical step given his machine–like output. He’d like to use it to make furniture—an early passion—but doesn’t have the storage space. It’s at this point he expresses his reverence for the environmental artist Christo, and the penny drops.

On the afternoon I visited, the CNC was about to be pressed into service to create masks for a daughter’s upcoming birthday party. These weren’t just any masks, but (in keeping with the Venetian masked ball theme) elaborate, whimsical creations. For once, Keene’s going to have to hold the paint—his daughter and her friends will be in charge of that.

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