On Steve Keene

Will Oldham

It is easy to understand why an artist would have become an Abstract Expressionist, why she would look up, down, and all around; look at the fact that people willfully pursue the means to destroy all people; and attempt to capture and own the destruction of meaning via works that painfully (and at times gleefully) explode or ignore concrete representation of what we are and what we do. It got to where the most abject and eloquent of meaning-deniers and significance-exploders were revered and elevated using the most ridiculous and meaningless metric available to humanity: excessive monetary value. Fast-forward to the todays, and along comes a scrappy painter out of Virginia who embraces, with every brushstroke and cogitation, the idea that our lives, myths, characters, accomplishments, and values have absolute currency—and further, that an individual can outproduce a machine when it comes to what we think of as works of art.

More than once in my life, I’ve found myself in a sea of Steve Keenes. When Keene makes, he makes a lot. And now when I wander the world, Keene’s works ground and remind my thinking/feeling spirit that I belong to many groups of people, in the way that hearing what were once collectively recognized “hit songs” on the radio did (“Who Let the Dogs Out?,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “You’re So Vain”). I see a Steve Keene and know that I am a part of that, at the very least because I, too, have paid five or ten or even twenty-five dollars for a piece of his work and hung it on my wall for decades.

At left is a picture of the most recent Steve Keene painting to come into our life here in the Oldham household. A reference to the 1973 Russell Hoban novel The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, it was commissioned by a friend turning fifty, who sent these to each of a group of friends. Now we are bound together by this particular painting, a real thing that cost nothing and means everything.

The folk-heroic Steve Keene says,
To the mass-producing art machine,
“I got brush and I got wood,
And I will do just what I should.”


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