Richard Keen paints coastal images in the kind of cubist pop style one might associate with David Hockney or Georges Braque…if Braque had ever been happy.
Keen showcases bands of bold, solid colors with bold outlines. Outlines are clear – usually straight lines or describable curves. But even when limited to straight lines and solid colors, his work is never simplistic. That’s because from the outset, Keen aligned himself with an energetic, heady modernism reminiscent of the most revolutionary moment in the avant-garde in painting: Synthetic Cubism.
Cubism in its original form, as propagated by Picasso and Braque, is complicated to explain, but easy to see. Likewise, Keen’s work is easy to see, understand, appreciate, and enjoy, even if it’s hard to discuss. It is visual rather than verbal. The painting that prides itself on depicting, like high-focus realism, is based on recognition (and skill) – the stuff of words. Keen’s work, on the other hand, is about visual ideas – forms and systems and their relationships.
‘Urban Seascapes’, now on display at Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Falmouth, showcases a range of Keen’s paintings bordering on recognizable ‘Maine’ subgenres: coastal landscapes, seascapes, boat designs, nautical still lifes and more.
Keen’s interest in the range of artistic genres not only emphasizes his own range, but allows him to bring in different systems of information, of knowledge. Keen has long relied on the logic of systems – things with rules, like math or games – rather than just images, but as he matures as a painter this reliance becomes increasingly apparent. more like a painter’s visual intelligence as opposed to conceptualist gestures (i.e. unrelated to the medium). Keen is a painter, and with increasing clarity he wants us to experience his work in painterly terms.
“Sea Geometry: No. 210,” for example, is a 2-foot square, white-framed image that doubles as a seascape with a coral sky and a cutaway diagram of a wooden boat. Like other images by Keen, “210” follows the strategic logic of game theory. A white encaustic (wax-paint) form takes the central visual spot but leans to the right like the diacritical mark of a school mare – bold, defined and defining.
Keen also pursues “map logic,” my own term for shapes defined by multiple systems. The shape of Maine, for example, combines the coastline, border-defining rivers, and politically drawn lines on maps to achieve its iconic shape. This map logic is precisely why Keen’s shapes challenge us: any given edge or curve has a reason. When it takes the nautical shape of a cross-section of a boat or, say, the shape of a blue, white-edged sail in a painting like “Sea Geometry No. 209” and places it against the distant coast, it’s not simply a thing in a landscape; it is a study in the contrast of forms. And, as with Late Cubism, we see Keen’s findings through the visual echoes of the painting in its forms, gestures, shapes, and flow of color. Keen seeks to playfully highlight the logic of visual intelligence, and he does so with the openness of a chess player. Its particular appeal is its recognition that, however cunning we are, human strategies will always be designated by nature. Keen refers to the shapes of boats, for example, which appeared long before the mathematics to describe them accurately (calculation) existed. Boat builders weren’t making engineering calculations, he reminds us, but were imitating what they saw in nature. In other words, Keen’s works allude to the history of human intuition (including pictorial sensibilities) in the physical world, rather than the achievements of technology.
At 5 feet on its shortest side, Keen’s “Sea Geometry No. 214” combines a lot. It clearly appears as a landscape, for example, depicting the ocean with an island in the background. With a dark vertical line descending near its center (with a blue triangle at the top, pointing to the apex of the line), it becomes a geometric tale of curved sail vectors. Beneath the twilight coral sky, the downward vertical line flows from the oddly shaped island silhouetted in the distant background of the scene. We sense the visual play of cubism in witty echoes, for example, of the central mast flowing left and the outstretched hand gesture of the central white form. It’s clearly meant to play the starring role of a sail, but Keen jokingly follows the top line down, above the curved bottom shape to remind us of a breast. Impressively, Keen leaves the mind to the domain of mathematics: so many forms echo the “breast” that we must see it as a mathematically derived form rather than a sexualized aspect of the human body. It is a brilliant painting and no less beautiful than intelligent.
The 4 square foot “Sea Geometry No. 202” is perhaps the most fitting painting in “Urban Seascapes”. This is an island seascape à la John Marin, but with vividly painted and compartmentalized sections. A scene with dark lands and golden skies juts out from the middle left; a similar scene floats above from the center mast of the tableau. A gray flat shape descends from its perch to the left of the image, so abruptly that it cuts through everything. A grid defining the vessels slopes horizontally away from us at the central base of the image. The painting is rich and intricate, yet easy to see as the shapes work extremely well as an abstraction.
Keen’s multi-system cubist approach has an effect quite opposite to that of most other painters: as a rule, a painter’s style reigns supreme in his work. But while Keen’s style is fairly easy to recognize, his systemic approach visually distances his paintings from one another, so his work is unusually varied. We too often favor the brand image of style over inventiveness. Keen may have a strategic approach, but as soon as he drops one system into another, he has to think in real time: there is no obvious recipe or outcome for any of his works. And it certainly works for me.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian living in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:
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