There's no question that oil paints were used to create the paintings in Jeffrey Keith: Recent Work. Invisible plumes of airborne linseed oil immediately engulf anyone who enters the Rule Gallery, where the show is on display. It's not a light aroma that simply wafts through the room -- it's too heavy for that -- but it's not one that assaults the senses, either. Call me crazy, but I love that smell (the hazardous nature of the fumes notwithstanding).
The visual part of this show, which was organized and installed by gallery director Robin Rule, a longtime supporter of Keith's efforts, is both aloof and elegant. It consists of mostly large and heavily worked and figured oil paintings and paintings on paper that smartly fill the gallery's entry space and main area.
Despite the overwhelming, multi-sensual effect of the oil paint in the room, Keith still feels the need to point out the obvious -- that he is primarily a painter. "This is what I really do," he says. "This is my focus, the meat of my work." The reason for this clarification is that Keith is also well-known for whimsical sculptures that have been widely exhibited over the last ten years. "The other stuff -- the sculptures -- they're about playing around a little bit. I am not a sculptor. I'm a painter."
Keith's interest in painting dates back to his childhood. Born in 1954 in Brockton, Massachusetts, he was encouraged to paint as a child by his grandfather, himself a Sunday painter. "My grandfather, who lived in New York, would give me paints and canvas as presents, beginning when I was about eight years old," he says. "Both my grandparents were big influences on me and encouraged my interest in art."
His childhood pastime took on a new importance, however, in prep school. "The school I went to, St. Paul's, was really conservative. I was being groomed to be another George W. Bush, and I was dying in that stifling environment," he says. "Then, in the summer of my sixteenth year, I had an epiphany. Late at night I went to the art teacher's house. I pounded on his door, and when he answered, I said, 'You've got to help me -- I want to be an artist,' and the first thing he said was, 'Does your father know?' That's how shameful it was."
Once the teacher (Tom Barrett, now retired) was convinced that Keith's father would allow it, he did help the teenager become an artist. "That man saved my life," Keith says dramatically.
Being among only a handful of students at St. Paul's who were interested in art, Keith became the president of the school's art association, and in that capacity got to have dinner one night with the late master abstract-expressionist Robert Motherwell, who just happened to be an old friend of Barrett's. At dinner, Motherwell said something about painting being dead, which enraged the young Keith. "I had to prove him wrong," he says. "But I'm now sure that I misunderstood him."
He must have, because the painting-is-dead chorus was being directed against artists like Motherwell, not the other way around. But the misunderstanding led to Keith's drive. (And at the time, he wouldn't have been sympathetic to Motherwell anyway, since Keith's style was representational.)
Despite his conservative approach, Keith enrolled in what was then the pretty fringy California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles in 1972. But it was clear right away that it was not the right place for him. "The 1970s was the height of conceptual art, and Cal Arts was at the front of it. You know the kind of thing: An artist hangs a cardboard box on the wall, and everyone's supposed to write about what art means to them on a little piece of paper and put it in the box?"
"Well, I wanted to paint," says Keith. So the next year, he went to the San Francisco Art Institute, where he says he "got to love the bad painters of the Bay Area." Two of his teachers there, Joan Brown and Bruce McGaw, were very influential. "It was from them that I got my heavy impasto and my fearlessness when it comes to color," he says. But after a year, Keith dropped out. "I was spending all this money on tuition, and that money could buy a lot of paint instead."
For the next several years he worked odd jobs, going back and forth between San Francisco and Boston. On one of these excursions, he got a summer gig in Colorado and loved it. In 1981 he moved here permanently. "I could have a gracious studio here, and I couldn't afford one in San Francisco or Boston," he says. (Sadly, "gracious studios" are really expensive here now, too.) The conditions were also right for giving up odd jobs and becoming a full-time teacher, and since 1993, he's been teaching studio classes at the University of Denver's School of Art and Art History.
By the end of the 1980s, Keith grew tired of his representational approach. "It was too limited," he says, "so I took the same things I was doing in those paintings and transferred the same needs into the abstracts." In other words, his abstracts have a subject matter. And what is that subject matter? Well, on the most obvious level, they're about color and the nature of paint in its viscous state. But according to Keith, they're also "metaphorical landscapes -- not literal landscapes, but psychological, social and sexual landscapes."
And personal landscapes, since they are a record of Keith's recovery from a serious car accident in the fall of 1999. "I had substantial injuries, including a brain hemorrhage. At first the doctors thought I wouldn't come back mentally, it was that bad," he says. During his long recovery, painting was the only thing that held him together. "It was a horrible year -- I was constantly forgetting things. But I went to my studio every day. At first I couldn't work, but slowly I started clawing my way back."
The neo-color-field paintings from the "Twelve Seasons" series, one of two groups of paintings in the Rule show, are about living through the accident. "They are informed with seasonal ideas; they're about being alive at different times of the year."
"February, 2001," hung opposite Rule's front door, is a large square covered by thick swatches of paint applied with some kind of knife-like tool. The composition is a mass of overlapping soft-edged rectangles in various shades of blue and black. It bears a stylistic relationship to the work of Hans Hoffmann and a conceptual one to that of Clyfford Still. Although it isn't a monochrome in the strict sense, it is essentially monochromatic, as are all the other paintings in the show.
Adjacent to "February, 2001" is "April, 2000," which is simpler in composition but still contains overlapping rectangles. And although it is one of the few small pieces in the series, the formal elements are much larger than those in "February, 2001."
In the main room, the atmosphere becomes dignified yet joyous. Each canvas is done in a color associated with the time of year suggested by the month in each title. "August, 2000" is in several shades of sunny yellow; "October, 2000" is a mosaic of rich hot reds; "May, 2000" is marked by smears of silvery green. The rhythm created by these colored canvases placed next to each other works beautifully. And instead of hanging them in month order, director Rule has arranged them to maximize their visual effects. Thus they function together as a total environment, almost in the manner of an installation.
That feeling isn't broken by the fact that a half-dozen paintings on Mylar from another of Keith's series, "Heaven and Earth," have also been included. Like the "Twelve Seasons" paintings, these are color-field monochromes, but instead of the rainbow of colors that he employed in that series, Keith uses only black, silver and red in "Heaven and Earth."
The black paintings have been done with roofing tar mixed with black oil pigments to darken it. The silver is aluminum roofing paint. Only the red panels use traditional oil paint. "As an art teacher, I'm always looking for non-art materials to use, like the tar and the roofing paint," says Keith. By doing so Keith opens up the possibilities of his palette.
There's one painting in the show that seems to straddle the two series. "Argent/Amarillo, 2000," in aluminum and oil paints on Mylar, is a vertical weaving of flat, monochromatic pigment passages. It was created by pulling the paint across the Mylar.
This show is just the latest in a series of first-rate abstract exhibits to be displayed in Denver this season. And even in such heady company, Keith's presentation holds its own.
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