The exhibition runs in conjunction with Rayday Film, on view at Hales Gallery, London. Both exhibitions preview on 15 January 2016.
Jeff Keen was an artist, poet and pioneering experimental filmmaker, working across and combining media and genres to forge his singular, subversive and highly influential perspective. He was an important contributor to the countercultural scene in Britain, participating in literary happenings and other events at the renowned Better Books on Charing Cross Road, as well as co-founding the London Filmmakers’ Co-op (now merged with London Video Arts to form LUX). However, his resolutely individual take on the medium’s cross-generic possibilities always remained on the fringes of the purely formalist avant-garde canon of experimental film. In Keen’s films, innovative techniques of film construction and transmission (including collage, animation, found footage, superimposed and hand-altered film stock, and multiple screen projections) are explored within the context of a diverse array of influences. These range from archetypal mythologies and the art historical movements of surrealism and romanticism to popular contemporary culture, particularly comic books and Hollywood B-movies, resulting in works which powerfully describe the frenetic, global world of post-war Western society. Defying the boundaries of genre and category, Keen’s art bears testament to the presence of an extraordinary creative universe and of a highly perceptive, radical voice contributing to the narratives of film and Twentieth Century art history.
Cartoon Theatre of Dr Gaz pushes our preconceived ideas of cinematography to the limit. It is a portrait of Keen’s countercultural world, a world where reality and fantasy, comedy and chaos and creation and destruction coexist. Made for the London Filmmakers Co-op in July 1976, Cartoon Theatre embodies the radical and progressive style of cinematography that distinguishes his work. As its name suggests, the film calls on a comicbook aesthetic to play out a fantastical and nonsensical production of invention and obliteration, life and death. Moving and still images are cut, cropped, overlaid and collaged in a frenzy of saturated colour while surrealist sketches and figurative newspaper clippings come to life in a rapid-fire sequence of stop-motion animation. These sequences are interlaced with footage of the jam-packed shelves of Keen’s own home and bizarre spectacles performed by his friends and family on a makeshift theatre set. Inky watercolour paintings act as a backdrop for plastic spiders and toy motorbikes, a severed snakehead emerges from a cardboard hole and green jelly squelches through the eyes of a face in a magazine.
Despite these humorous and zany scenes, the seriousness of the Second World War is a constant point of reference in Cartoon Theatre of Dr Gaz and across Keen’s film repertoire. Clips of cut-out guns firing dotted lines into daubs of paint, slogans reading ‘shoot to kill’ and drawings of brains escaping from cartoon heads are played out alongside the relentless sound of white noise. Objects are melted, burned, crushed and reinvented; repeated images of birth and death are a constant reminder of human mortality. For the exhibition, the film is shown alongside original ephemera, sculpture and photographs from the movie. The gallery lends itself to recreate the drama and animation of Keen’s eccentric world.