Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Monday, October 23, 2006

West Neighborhood: John Keefer

City-Wide Open Studios
50 Orange St., New Haven, (203) 772-2709
West Neighborhood: John Keefer
Oct. 21, 2006.

Tramping from studio to studio at Erector Square the first weekend of CWOS, I saw a lot of accomplished and engaging art. But as I prepared to go out this past Saturday morning to visit "West Neighborhood" studios, it occurred to me that little of what I had seen—and perhaps this was because I was only able to visit artists in two building of the Erector Square complex—touched on our contemporary national moral crisis. War. Torture. The abandonment of the Bill of Rights. Indefinite detention without judicial review. Secret prisons. Mary Lesser's acrylic and collage paintings spoke to the trauma of 9/11 but where was the cri de coeur of an artist over, say, the Guantanamo concentration camp or Abu Ghraib?

And then—perhaps there are no real coincidences—my first stop on Saturday morning was the Westville studio of John Keefer. Among the works on the wall were numerous in-progress paintings based on the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs. Naked detainees in a pile. Defenseless prisoners being menaced by dogs. Lynndie England pointing at a hooded detainee's penis.

I asked Keefer what motivated him to interpret those images. There were, he said, a number of factors.

"I have a preoccupation with the idea that pictures have different values, high value and low value. In terms of the quantity of information they carry, and the results on the viewer, both as emotional experience and on the analytical level," said Keefer. "These are high value images I knew people were likely to see.

"There have been various times when I thought there's nothing else I could work on, they're so perfect. They're enclosed, not landscapes. There are so many art historical references. I get surprised when I work on them," continued Keefer. He pointed to the painting of the now iconic scene with Lynndie England, directing my attention to the dark shadows on the left, behind England.

"Isn't the light in this so beautiful?" he asked. Continuing with the notion of surprise, Keefer told me that he had wanted to include a haiku as part of the image. He was unsure of the number of syllables in a haiku so he Googled "haiku." And the first haiku that came up was "Calm after the storm/ Madness turns to sanity/ Serenity reigns." Perfect, in a darkly ironic sense, for the image. When he tried Googling it again he couldn't find it.

For this series, Keefer is working on two surfaces, wood and canvas. He wants to make the paintings identical to the original photographs and is taking a classical approach, laying them out in a grid. In earlier work I had seen of his, writing a profile for a CWOS preview in the New Haven Advocate several years ago, he had included his dog in some paintings, a point of continuity with these efforts.

I asked whether he was intending a political point with the work. At that point the bus tour led by Artspace Director Helen Kauder showed up, and Keefer addressed his answer, or non-answer, to the whole group.

"Are these supposed to change anybody's mind on anything? Are they anti-something? I just felt compelled to make them," he said.

"I realize some are hideous," Keefer added, pointing to the England painting, "so I made some that people like, like these cloud pictures." He gestured toward sky landscapes on the adjacent wall. On the wall in the short entry hall, there was a painting of an automatic weapon. "I think the blue and green go very well together. So if you want, I will finish that picture and you can have it at your house.

"You give me some money, of course," Keefer said, a sly smile playing across his face.


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