Exhibition review: Jeff Keen at Kate MacGarry

Originally published on The Upcoming on 12th March 2013

With a Lichtenstein retrospective currently on at Tate Modern, it’s timely to have an exhibition of Britain’s less famous but no less influential pop culture pioneer, Jeff Keen. Kate MacGarry’s gallery is currently exhibiting a choice edit from Keen’s titanic collection of films and paintings.

Keen was a prolific film-maker and artist, famed for his experimental cut-and-paste methods using collage and found objects. Destined for the heady spires of Oxford University, Keen was instead dragged off to war in 1942; an experience that had a palpable effect on his work.

The paintings on display tackle the serious issue of war with a carefree comic book sensibility. This absurd juxtaposition of childlike imagery and wartime atrocities was perhaps Keen’s coping mechanism – a way to exorcise his demons. It also hints at a regression to childhood, a yearning to recapture youthful innocence. Remember, Keen was working long before the modern era, where fully grown men play computer games in a desperate Peter Pan-like attempt never to grow up. In more ways than one, Keen was ahead of his time.

Furious squiggles seem to defy their static form, almost jumping off the page. Melted dolls, horrendously twisted and deformed, are incorporated into some of the works. They are laughably inane, but their contorted frames still hauntingly remind you of the gory impact of a shell on real flesh. You might say soldiers are treated like toys – playthings for forces far greater than themselves. The genius of Keen’s work is in it being fervently anti-war in such a playful manner.

Keen is best known for his films, and yet in this exhibition they play second fiddle, with a single small screen playing a selection of his vast collection. The films are like the wet-dream of a futurist on speed – a million frames a second of collage, cut and spliced images and scratchy animation overlaid on glorious 8mm. They capture the incessant pace and virulent force of the 20th Century’s greatest and grimmest inventions: machine guns, aeroplanes, atomic bombs.

The decision to downplay the films makes inherent sense given that Tate Modern and the BFI have both done large-scale celebrations of them in recent years, but the experience is nonetheless a little disappointing as a result. It’s a minor gripe – this is still a must-see.


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