The Steve Keene Art Book
By Daniel Efram
Hat and Beard Press
Just getting my hands on a review copy of this monster was a major struggle, but eventually a link arrived, and I pulled the 263-page Steve Keene Art Book down onto my laptop. Steve Keene, an “outsider” artist, was new to me. With little formal training, he creates exciting images in a folk art style, and he may be the most prolific painter of this or any other century. Working out of New York City, he’s created and painted 300,000 artworks. His subject matter is all over the place: portraitures, abstract album covers, pop art beer cans. You name it, he paints it.
His character studies and politically-inspired material fill the book, and as I page from painting to painting, I’m impressed with the energy and sparse color groupings. Somehow Keene’s work reminds me of the paintings decorating the Chuy’s restaurant chain, if only they were produced by competent artists. If you met Steve early, his paintings cost $2. Today, they are starting to bring in much larger sums. Keene’s artwork drips a raw energy, and he pays no particular attention to detail, but the bright, flashy compositions scream “I need to be on your wall, NOW!” Topics range from famous person portraiture, to sunny landscapes, to a few abstracts I’m not clever enough to decode.
We visit his studio, it’s dark and cramped. Keene appears as a slight, paint-spattered man with multi-level easels tucked into a rather dark workspace. He’s unremarkable looking, lacking the intensity of Basquiat or the anger and earthiness of Jackson Pollack. He’s reached a technical plateau where he can set up a dozen canvases and make multiple images much more efficiently. The first half of the book is Keene’s history and influences, all written in tiny, dense font. The last half is page after page of art.
I love his distinctive style: raw yet controlled and focusing on a single concept per canvas. I see his working style as a one-man Florida Highwaymen operation. That crew of African-American artists and salesmen created simple views of rural Florida and sold them at roadside stands. Each of the Highwaymen had a specialty: birds, trees, animals, ocean waves. But here Keene does it all himself. I see agonizing composition and color gradients, no attempt to “make it look real.” This is an artist of integrity, highly productive, popularly priced, and still amazing to look at, and in this book, you have plenty to look at. There are hundreds of images, all printed out on high-quality semigloss paper. It’s outsider art with a real heart.