Brooklyn Boro

30 years and 300,000 paintings: Brooklyn artist Steve Keene celebrates his inimitable career

September 19, 2022 Ella Napack
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Brooklyn’s Steve Keene has painted over 300,00 paintings over the past few decades from his studio, a chain-link “painting cage.” A one-man machine, Keene’s distinctive work has been sold or given away to thousands across the nation.

You may have run in to his work in a local bar or record shop, or maybe you’ve seen one of his album covers for the band Pavement or The Apples in Stereo. His work sells for just $5 or $10 per painting, allowing anyone to become an art collector. Keene challenges the idea that “good art” must be expensive.

The Steve Keene Art Book was created to try and put into historical context the impact this artist has had on thousands of art fans around the world. Many fans got their introduction to collecting through the affordable and distinctive pieces that Steve Keene has created through his 30-year art delivery experiment.

Daniel Efram produced The Steve Keene Art Book over the span of 6 years, documenting Keene’s gallery exhibitions alongside original works sent in from dozens of Keene collectors and Kickstarter supporters.

The Steve Keene Art Book is a collection of photos of his paintings, essays from luminaries of the art and music worlds and more. Photo: Daniel Efram

With the Steve Keene 30-year Retrospective and book launch opening party coming up in Brooklyn on September 22, the Eagle sat down with Keene to chat about his celebrated career. The party on Thursday will be held at 8:30 pm at ChaShaMa, 360 Furman St 11211, on the BK waterfront.

Congratulations on such an amazing and prolific career with the creation of over 300,000 paintings. One painting seems like enough of a challenge to me, let alone hundreds of thousands. So what does this book mark in your artistic career?

Truthfully, this is a beautiful book made by a superfan. It is a little overwhelming to me, I have not even looked at it yet. You know, I make anywhere from 30 to 50 pictures a day and I sell them on my website, or I eBay them, so they are not even in my house a week after I do them. I think what gives me the energy is that I don’t have art around to see; I just get rid of it, as soon as I do it, and I kind of like it that way. I like it that I treat the whole practice is if I’m a restaurant. When I look at my older paintings, they all look good to me, most of them do, but the book is sort of like I’m a chef looking at old food that customers have shown me. It’s something that’s already been digested, so I don’t need to see it again.

Your ‘superfan’ is Daniel Efram. What has been his role in your artist process? How long have you worked with him and what role did he play in the book?

It really is his book. He put it all together. He worked 4 years at it, and he tracked down people who have my art all over the country. I can’t even imagine it; to me it is way harder to make a book than to paint 300,000 paintings. There are hundreds of pictures in the book, but I have painted hundreds of thousands. So it’s only a snapshot of what I do, it’s sort of a beginner’s guide. Hopefully, it’s sort of like a guide for people that want to track down my art, if you’re at a yard sale, or a Salvation Army, or some local store. You might find my work at your cousin’s house or a bar. I like that it’s sort of an introduction to a larger mystery about what I’ve done, and why did I do it.

Steve Keene has made hundreds of thousands of paintings from his Brooklyn studio. Photo: Daniel Efram

You are very intertwined with the music world, what relationship does your artwork have to that? Is the book at all like a music album?

There are a lot of music images in the book. The way I started doing my work, I went to art school, and I was kind of good at it, but I didn’t really know what good art meant. I didn’t know which way to push myself and nothing gave me a great amount of energy. And then thought about how I loved the way my friends’ bands try to get their work out in the world. They’re on radio stations, or they’re in bars or in their clubs. And they have a shoebox filled with cassette tapes or CDs, and later on in albums. They just sold their stuff. I felt like, “I kind of want to be a merch table.” I kind of want to get my work out in an informal way. It is something that you’re not supposed to do as an artist. But artists that that I really liked, somebody like Christo, were doing something you’re not supposed to. Uou’re not supposed to take hundreds of thousands of square feet and hang art in trees or on phone poles or something like that. That’s not how you make any money. And I just like people trying to do the impossible. Trying to use their work to do something that has not been done before. And there are folk artist too, outsider artists that have put their work out there, like Howard Finster. But I was Art School trained. I wasn’t like a crazy person literally living in a shack, and I supposedly did everything right. But I was kind of disillusioned with what right was supposed to be.

I was struck by your quote, “I want buying my paintings to be like buying a CD: it’s cheap, it’s art and it changes your life, but the object has no status.” What role does the individual piece have? What does it mean for a painting to be 1 in 300,000?

There is a lot of significance in the individual piece too. It is like a reminder, or a trinket, like you have like a coaster from a bar that you love going to or you have a keychain that you like. It is a reminder of someplace that you went to that brings up great memories, that kind of thing.

I would love to learn more about one of your latest and methods of creating: what exactly is tattooed plywood?

I have been mass producing my work for about 30 years, and about 10 years ago I decided that I needed to do something for myself. This was kind of a reaction to my day job, which is the mass producing of art. And tattooed plywood is drawing on the computer, I use AutoCAD, and Rhino programs to make 3D virtual models. And then I use proceses where you can flatten those models and turn them into drawings that then can be used on a machine that I have called the shop bot, which engraves into plywood. These drawings I create are like tattoos into wood, and then I scrape ink or sand into the crevices, sort of like an etching process. The ink in the wood really shows the drawing. I don’t really sell them. They cost more to do, and they take longer to do, so I keep them for myself. And one day, I’ll show them to the world. But right now, it’s my it’s my secret.

Steve Keene smiles in front of a few of his “tattooed plywood” pieces. Photo: Daniel Efram

Can you tell me about the painting cage?

My wife and I bought this building about 25 years ago in Brooklyn, and now we’ve got two kids. So little by little, the amount of my studio space got kind of gobbled up to be living space. The painting cage is a great way to kind of maximize the amount of wall space I have. We live in a garage building and there are really no walls. I didn’t want to put any walls up to make a separate studio. I wanted the studio to be at the other end of the house. And so this cage is supports the canvases, the panels that I work on, and I can see through it as I work. A lot of people think, ‘Oh God you’re working in a cage,” but for me, it’s sort of like the other way around. It is like thank God I’m in a structure built around me to protect me from you, you guys outside.

Speaking of Brooklyn, what’s your relationship to the area?

Brooklyn is great, and I live in Greenpoint, so I’ve seen a lot of changes. We’ve been here in the neighborhood for 29 years. And I’m one of the people that kind of likes the changes, because it’s sort of fun to see.

Does Brooklyn play a role in your work at all? I know you’re creating in Brooklyn, but does Brooklyn as an entity come into your process at all? Or is it more just the place where you where you make work and show work sometimes?

I think it always has come into my work. When we first got here there was nothing in the neighborhood. The first time you could get sushi in the neighborhood was like a man walking on the moon. And I love the fact that it was like camping out, that you were far away from everything, except you weren’t. You were just like a couple of subway stops from the East Village. And that’s where we’d see bands and I would find my art supplies and things like that. It felt like it was living in the country, back in the day. And now it’s a tourist destination, and I like that, too.

Does the process of mass production become tedious or is it cathartic? What is the day-to-day like of being a bit of a one-man factory?

I love it. Because I figured out that I just hated when I had to worry about if my art was good or bad. That seemed to drain so much energy from being a creative person. I love all kinds of arts, but in some ways, just art of the past 60 years. I love Robert Rauschenberg. I love how effortless it looks, how it looks like you are just throwing things together in silkscreens of different images. And I just thought his art was so much about storytelling. And it felt like he showed all the flaws in the creative processes and that felt like part of the art too. I’m a figurative painter, but I kind of felt that I should try to show the flaws of painting and stop worrying if it was good or bad. I started to think of it as a ritual. It is like I’m in a bakery decorating 100 birthday cakes or retirement cakes or something like that. It felt like I was floating, and I haven’t stopped that feeling. I would love them to look like little Vermeer paintings, but because I mass produce them, there’s a looseness to it. But sometimes that looseness, the unpredictability of throwing it together, might be better looking than if I labored over. So over the years, I really tried to dumb my painting down in a very structured way that I thought would be recognizable, but spontaneous.

Steve Keene’s deep affinity and connection with the 90s music scene is apparent in his work. Photo: Daniel Efram

Over the past 6 years that this book has been in progress, has it infiltrated your creative process at all? Or have you kept your distance from it?

I’m not part of it. I have not sat down and looked at the whole book, but sometimes somebody will bug me to come over and look at the book. If they are looking at it, sometimes if I am walking by, I will look over their shoulders. But then I try to run away, because I don’t want to think that like something is frozen in time. And that’s good for observers, but not good for me.

What has it been like to receive all the support that the book has gained?

I appreciate it. I enjoy the attention, what I do is like a performance, and that’s why I think a lot of musicians have liked my work. It’s an absurd thing to stand in front of 100 people and sing, it takes a lot of bravery. And most of my shows I painted on site, and I think people get that I’m doing something absurd, but it takes a but of commitment and bravery to not feel weird about it.

The opening is coming up on Thursday, will you be there?

I’ll be painting and people can look at me. And look at some art. I think there’s some stuff there for sale, a lot of the stuff has been borrowed from people that Daniel knows, and people that he tracked down over 30 years. It’s kind of interesting, the idea that he tried to get a bunch of work from all over the country that people have owned for years and years.

Going into the show, is there anything else that you want Brooklyn to know?

Just thank you, Brooklyn. I do love it here. It is a little stressful, but it is kind of the center of the world. Sometimes it was fun when it was a little bit undiscovered. But you know, everybody else deserves to come over here too. They deserve to have some fun in Brooklyn. So I don’t mind sharing it with them.


The Steve Keene Art Book Launch is Thursday, September 22 from 6:00 – 8:30 p.m. at ChaShaMa, 360 Furman St, Brooklyn. More event information is available here.

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