The exhibition, to be presented at the Hales Project Room in New York, explores a selection of Keen’s drawings and films from the late 1960s and the 1970s.
Keen was an artist, poet and film-maker best known for his pioneering experimental work with film and video, which he began making aged 37 in 1960. These works, with their unusually diverse range of influences – from archetypal mythologies and art historical movements such as Surrealism, to personal experiences and popular culture, particularly Hollywood B-movies and comic books – embody a distinctive aesthetic that placed Keen on the fringes of the purely formalist avant-garde canon of experimental film.
By turns beautiful and poetic, raw and apocalyptic, Keen’s films are rendered using experimental techniques that fuse live action and animation – a combination of collage, drawings, found footage, hand-altered film stock, and layered projections. An expansive cast of comic book-inspired characters come to life in rapid-fire sequences that merge reality and fantasy, comedy and violence, creation and destruction, narrative storytelling and chaotic fragmentation. This exhibition spotlights two of Keen’s films: Cineblatz (1967) and The Cartoon Theatre of Dr Gaz (1976–79).
Keen’s first work shot in 16mm, Cineblatz is a compact collection of over twenty individual animations merging collaged clippings from contemporary adverts and newspapers, sketched characters and splashes of paint in lightning-speed sequence, set against a distinctively Keen soundtrack of radio noise. The Cartoon Theatre of Dr Gaz, meanwhile, combines live action and animation – often in the form of the appearance of Keen’s own hand painting, tearing, flicking through, and burning his own books of drawings – in the construction of a series of interconnected scenes of violence, sex, and creativity, filled with many of his most iconic characters and presided over by the frenzied ‘Dr Gaz’, one of the artist’s many alter-egos. Together, both works stand as iconic examples of the artist’s inimitable cinematic ‘blatz’ universe: his invented term for the explosive style or ‘ryth-u-m’ (rhythm) of his chopped-up words and images.
These cinematic innovations and influences also find their way into Keen’s boundary-pushing work, and frequently neglected, work in other media. Keen’s books of watercolour drawings, as well as providing scenography in the artist’s films, are themselves significant expressions of his complex and idiosyncratic creative philosophy, as exemplified by the masterful series highlighted in this exhibition: Further Adventures of the Breathless Investigator, from the 1970s. This two-dimensional tale rendered in scribbled lines and expressive washes of colour is filled with the same dismembered comic book characters (the Lady in Red, Mister Cyclops, and of course the Breathless Investigator) and fragmented noir-inspired narrative, conveyed through combination of words and images, as any of his moving-image masterpieces.
As was noted by film and video artist Steve Hawley on the occasion of Keen’s inclusion in a 1986 Serpentine Gallery exhibition (‘Charting Time: an exhibition of artist’s drawings, notes and diagrams for film and video’), ‘Keen’s notebooks occupy an ambiguous status in relation to his films. They are not preparatory sketches or storyboards but rather like Surrealist “films on paper”. Keen himself once stated that the sets ‘though complete in themselves… work playful variations around the themes and images of the film.’ Sometimes together in sequence, other times standing alone, their form powerfully suggests the ‘comic strip of life’ that Keen sought to conjure in all his work. Meanwhile, their resonant imagery evokes the same manic universe of creation and violent destruction through which, across media, Keen’s art powerfully describes the frenetic, global world of post-war Western society.