Steve Keene actively distances himself from the world of fine art, but that hasn’t stopped the Greenpoint-based painter from being named Brooklyn Public Library’s Artist-in-Residence for Summer 2014. Keene, best known for his astounding productivity (he claims to have sold or given away more than 250,000 paintings over his career) and art for the likes of Pavement (the cover of Wowee Zowee) and Soul Coughing, has always been something of a maverick.
Having graduated with an MFA from Yale, Keene quickly became disillusioned with the traditional choices available to artists. “It seemed like you were either going to get famous or maybe teach,” he recalls. Inspired by the bands he came into contact with while working at a college radio station, he went rogue. “In a way I turned myself into a folk artist—someone not dependent on any organized structure,” he says. His strategy? To mass-produce multiple almost-identical hand-painted canvases at great speed, and make them available at very low prices.
“My favorite piece of work is the system I have structured for myself,” he says, referring to this kinetic process. “I hate working on one painting at once.” He’d rather line up 40 canvases and attack them with a paintbrush simultaneously. One of the reasons he was so drawn to music initially was the immediacy and physicality of the medium. “It’s very different from being an artist in a studio. Musicians depended on other people’s response to their art.” In search of this connection, Keene began to paint in public—and enjoyed the way the meaning of the work unfolded in the process.
Now, as part of his residency, he’ll be painting three days a week in front of the Central Library. Although he’ll be making Brooklyn-focused artworks in deference to the institution hosting him, he doesn’t generally worry about subject matter. “I’m the equivalent of a restaurant,” he says. “I need to perfect my craft and ensure my workstation is ideal—but it’s not about being inspired. It just kind of thrills me that I can paint in front of people and not freak out.”
Far from waiting for inspired transformation to strike, Keene generally makes a conscious effort not to change, because he likes the idea of making an identifiable product. He recently started creating large “tattooed plywood” works, which are etched by a machine, in an attempt to catch up with the computerized modern world (several of them will be on display during his residency). Otherwise, his oeuvre has remained remarkably static, which clearly does not deter customers. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and what’s cool is that young people are still buying my stuff,” he says. “It’s like the sort of thing you hang in your dorm.”
This makes sense, because Keene originals go for great prices. Incoming freshmen can look forward to outfitting their new rooms for fall semester with items freshly painted during his Brooklyn residency. “I was convinced to jack up the price to $10,” says Keene grudgingly. “I liked $5 because you can’t buy anything for $5 anymore. There’s something mystical about $5. But I guess if I don’t want to lose money, I have to charge $10.”
Steve Keene’s Brooklyn Experience will be on display in Central Library’s grand lobby from June 12 to August 29. Keene will paint live in Grand Army Plaza (outside the library) every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., weather permitting, between June 19 – August 16