Stella Keen in “Dreams and Past Crimes of the Archduke” (1984)
You currently manage your father’s estate. What kind of work does this entail?
When my father died he left an amazing body of work – so much more than the films he is best known for. So I have the job of both sorting through and cataloguing it all; curating exhibitions of this work, so people can discover and appreciate what an incredibly talented artist he was. I’ve also been working on creating affordable limited edition prints and merchandising so that it’s easier to own a Jeff Keen work!
What is the most important aspect of this work?
For me, it’s all about getting my father’s work seen by as many people as possible and accessible to all. It is very important to me that he is not just recognised for his outstanding film work but for the fact that he is such an important British artist and poet as well.
Your father was not a commercial artist, what do you think his reasons were for this?
He wasn’t interested in the commercial side of things at all, apart from a fascination with the universal appeal of popular culture. He appreciated the fact that this and certain ‘lowbrow’ forms of art, e.g. comic books, rock ‘n roll etc were easily read and understood by everyone. He liked the idea of creating a universal language. He wanted all art to be more democratic – not elitist but easily accessible to all.
He actually studied commercial art for a while at Chelsea when he left the army, but it was too restrictive for him. Having said that, he had such a good designer’s eye! As a designer myself, I am struck by this – his natural talent for layout and meticulous attention to detail. He was of course a great admirer of American comic books, collecting them over the years and adding references to them into his films and artwork. That strong dynamic style and use of colour heavily influenced his work.
What do you think your father was implying through his work?
It’s very easy to misread some of his work and see it for surface value. I’m thinking in particular of his use of war references and sexualised imagery, but this was only a means of telling a far deeper story. He was dealing with universal archetypes – the Homeric idea of the hero and the quest features large in his work – and that we are all heroes of our own stories. The concept of war is not really war as we immediately think of it, but war as an internal battle of survival – our bodies against external elements, forces beyond our control and also the artist ‘at war’ with his own creativity. He’s dealing with the themes of construction, destruction and chaos. Also how love and beauty is eternal. Within the multi-layering of his films there comes an extraordinary breadth of ideas and philosophical questions. People often miss a lot of it because the work is so fast and furious often, that it carries you along with it’s own amazing rhythm. Even on the many viewings I’ve had of his films, I STILL discover new things in them!
Who do you think his influences were?
So many influences! Too many to list here really! It’s almost as though he soaked up all he could of the 20th century like a sponge and took all he could out of it to rework into his own story. He was an academic and incredibly well read, with a wonderfully encyclopedic mind. You could literally ask him about anything and he’d know the answer! He balanced this fantastic intelligence with a wonderful childlike playfulness and sense of humour.
In art he loved Titian, German Romantics and Symbolist art, William Blake, Picasso, Matisse, Dubuffet, English Neo Romantics of the 40s and 50s, Surrealism and Dadaism – particularly the work of Matta and Wilfredo Lam, Abstract Expressionists and artists from the Cobra Group
In film – John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Cocteau, Bunuel, Film Noir directors like Nicholas Ray + B Movie hero Ed Wood and so many more. It’s interesting it was mainly mainstream movies that excited him – not so much other experimental work, although he acknowledged people like Len Lye and Stan Brakhage of course.
In writing – he had a vast library which ranged from greats like Shakespeare, Rabelais and Jonathan Swift right through to the likes of Henry Miller, Burroughs and many modern writings. His love of poetry (in it’s broadest sense) also extended from Thomas Malory’s La Morte D’Arthur and Metaphysical work, right through to Beat poetry and beyond.
In terms of popular culture, of course his love of American Comics – both mainstream and underground – and trash pulp fiction, as well as B movies, is obvious. He loved Forrest J. Ackerman for his Famous Monsters magazine and amazing museum collection of B Movie Horror treasures. He was a particular fan of artists who displayed so much dynamic energy in the drawn line. Jeff did many Homages to Tex Avery, for instance, and he collected Mad Magazine – mainly for Don Martin’s fantastic drawings.
Both yourself and your mother, Jackie feature in your father’s films. What was this like appearing in his work?
It was of course an amazing experience and a great education too. At first I was appearing in the films but as I got older I was helping behind the camera too, and was ‘second camera’ on a lot of his movies. It meant that I learnt about performing and acting from a very early age, and all that goes into making a production with many performers and props – albeit a very low budget production! I got used to dressing up and being under the heat of the arc lamps, hanging around for ages to get the best shot. Even though there’s such a ‘throwaway’ element to my father’s work, he was actually very focused and had a very definite vision of what he wanted to achieve. I’m still finding the storyboards of these ideas, which is very exciting to see the thought process behind it all.
Keen Family Portrait
Can you tell us about the exhibitions that are current and up and coming?
Based on the success and interest in the recent exhibitions of Jeff’s work, I am currently working on proposals for touring versions of these. Specifically the retrospective “Shoot the Wrx” exhibition that was recently at Brighton Museum and also the 360 degree film installation that was at the Tanks at Tate Modern last year.
Gazapocalypse – Return to the Golden Age, installation for the Tanks
There is also a very exciting idea for a group show I’m proposing too. Aside from this,
some of my father’s artwork will feature in a touring show about the Better Books art scene of London in the 60’s – which my father played an active and important role in. During that time, he worked with William Burroughs and Jeff Nuttall, amongst others, and helped found the London Filmmakers Co-op out of it. This exhibition arrives at the Trondheim Kunsthalle in Norway in Feb 2014.
Also Kate MacGarry Gallery – who currently represents my father’s work – and I are working on a feature of his work at the Basel Art Fair next year. There are other exciting things planned – watch this space! There will be information on all this on the new website I’m building for him too.
What do you think your father has to teach future artists and filmmakers?
What he taught me – is that you can create magic from nothing. Literally nothing. He was the master of no budget moviemaking and he didn’t care if he was painting on canvas or old newspaper or cardboard. He proved you can make your mark with very little money or materials, as long as you trust your instincts and your drive – your life force! So many artists and filmmakers seem to get bogged down by constraints of budget and media recognition, when it’s all about how you make your mark and what you’re saying with it.
Jeff Keen Painting In ‘Meatdaze’ (1968)
Jeff Keen created an enormous body of work during his life time. Of this work do you have any personal favourites?
Of his films, I have various favourites for different reasons:
“Mad Love” is my overall favourite as it is not only a Surrealist masterpiece but a great homage to cinema history – with just the best soundtrack ever – created from some old records that my father found in a Brighton street market. It’s definitely the most theatrical, jokey and playful of all his films, incorporating great elements of music hall, saucy seaside humour, haunting erotica and silent movie style vignettes. The pulp fiction style ‘tableaux vivantes’ directly reference things like the early Louis Feuillade ‘Fantomas’ murder mysteries that inspired the Surrealists.
“White Dust” is a beautiful elegy to the innocent poetry of B-Movies. It was great fun to be part of that particular film. By then I was old enough to enjoy and get into it a bit more than when I was a toddler! I was fascinated by how my father could achieve the wonderfully dreamlike layering of imagery in that film. Incredibly it was a set of random accidents brought about by simply filming a reel then rewinding it back to the beginning in camera and re-filming over it again. You can do that with those beautiful 16mm cameras and it creates something sumptuous, mysterious, majestic… The soundtrack is made up from Hollywood music library stock – a kind of generic B Movie soundtrack that my father edited together and it really makes the mood and pace of the film.
But I’m always knocked out by his first animated films from “Wail” onwards. That one especially was designed to be played with a jazz soundtrack and his animation seems to follow it’s own punchy jazz rhythm.
Of his artwork, I am particularly moved and excited by the early work from the 50’s as it shows the young artist working through his various influences and assimilating them into his own unique style.
Did your father give any interviews during his lifetime?
There are several he gave over the years which can be found online mostly. I think the most in-depth one, which gives a great overview of his methodology and way of thinking about art, the universe and everything, is the Channel 4 documentary that was made back in the early 80’s. The film company we worked with on this (I helped a lot with the art direction, working closely with my father and the team on this) allowed us free rein to create a uniquely styled documentary piece that wonderfully encapsulates so many elements of my father’s work.
Do you recall the manner of your father’s arts practice?
This is an interesting one! An extraordinary mix of styles actually. On the one hand, you had a large swift gestural style reminiscent of the Abstract Expressionists that you see when he’s being filmed painting etc.
On the other hand we see a very detailed and well thought out process at work. I didn’t realise the full extent of this until I discovered his portfolio of early work from the 40s and 50s. It was a revelation and helped make so much more sense of his later work! There was so much incredible beautiful detailed work there, so accomplished, that it’s amazing to compare it with his later work, where he had honed down his style to a simple graffiti style calligraphy.
In the film work, I remember him directing us all with these very definite ideas for the scenes he was creating. He made extensive notes and storyboards and took time to set up each scene and pay attention to details in costumes and props. It looks very thrown together in the movies somehow but was actually very carefully worked out. I remember the actors/friends understanding and sharing the jokes and references he was making as they were similar intellectuals who also shared his love of movies. They all went to the cinema a lot! By the time I made “Mad Love”, I was old enough to understand the references myself (although I questioned if the audience would always ‘get’ all of it!). Also I was already working behind the camera, helping film various scenes as well as taking stills.
With his later work, which took a different turn – more introspective, more about the artist and their place in the Universe – I worked extensively with him on those. By that stage we were a camera team and I understood intuitively what he wanted to achieve with shots and scenes. This extended to the work we did in his Expanded Cinema performances, where I worked mainly on sound effects and music with other participants as well as performing. He worked intensely every day of his life, until he was too ill to do it any more, which frustrated him terribly. It was a joy to work with him because he was always so much fun, joking and fooling around, but always in control of what he was doing.
Do you have a particular favourite piece of work?
A little known and uncharacteristic painting called ‘The Last Movie’. It’s such a simple beautiful painting and incredibly atmospheric and evocative of both comic books and film noir. I also think his ‘LAFF’ painting from the 60s is phenomenal. The later painting ‘Orfeo Blatzo’ is monumental and awe inspiring. I’m particularly fond of his early collage works and the assemblages. I’d also like to mention his fantastic experimental sound work and the power of his vocal recordings. It’s tremendously exciting to be working with Trunk Records on bringing these recordings together and out to the public.
The Last Movie (1970)
These works inspire and move me. They resonate for me on several levels – in a personal familiar way but also because they perfectly reveal the talent of a sweet gentle maverick who was way ahead of his time and not afraid to take risks and experiment!
What is your opinion on your father’s work?
I’ve kind of already said it really. I am still astounded by it – even after all this time. He was just so fearless, so groundbreaking – pre-empting graffiti/street art and taking the best parts of 20th century art movements and popular culture and reworking them into his own unique language and style. A lot of artists are mainly talented in one area, but he not only tackled painting and sculpture head on, but rewrote cinematic language whilst also writing the most fabulous poetry AS WELL AS pushing boundaries in experimental sound work and live performance! An incredible all round talent and great inspiration. I realise actually that his Expanded Cinema performance work has inspired my new Theatre of Fur Company – which also seeks to break the boundaries between theatre and cinema.
So we can only marvel at Dr Gaz, immerse ourselves in his playful explosive world, allow ourselves to be ‘blatzed’ and come out (hopefully) smiling and inspired!
Orfeo Blatzo (1990)
The National Arts Trust would like to thank Stella Keen for conducting this interview and wish her all the best with her future work with the Jeff Keen Archive
Interview with Becky Blackhurst
The experimental sound album “Jeff Keen Noise Art” available from Trunk Records