Jeff Keen: Artist and film-maker celebrated for his playful approach to the avant-garde

 

Jeff Keen was a hugely prolific experimental artist who moved easily between painting, poetry, sculpture and cinema, often with collage as his basic approach. His lo-fi, DIY aesthetic, fascination with popular culture, sexual openness, the way he roped in friends and relatives, and his playful approach to personae echoed Warhol's Factory and the trash cinema of the Kuchars and Jack Smith.

Keen seemed set for Oxford University but he was called up in 1942 and the war became an important influence on his art. After demob came a small art college in Chelsea and thence to Brighton, where he worked as a municipal gardener while creating art in various media. Coincidentally he lived near where the British cinema pioneer, GA Smith, had had his studio in the 1890s.

His wife Jackie worked at a local art college and when it started a film society, Keen, almost without realising, became one of the first British avant-garde film-makers. The critic Raymond Durgnat wrote admiringly that "Keen makes movies on shoestrings and then blows them up to 8mm."

Wail (1960), Like the Time Is Now (1961) and Breakout (1962) are silent monochrome crime dramas and teen rebellion pics made avant garde with jump cuts, almost single-frame editing, cut-up inserts and animated found materials. Nevertheless, Keen denied any allegiance to pop art.

He preferred 8mm; 16mm was a move towards "acceptance" and "conformity", and he mounted shows in shops and other non-traditional venues. Similarly, he remained in Brighton to keep some distance from London's "mainstream" avant-garde, though he was happy to drop in. In 1962 he started his own magazine, Amazing Rayday.

In 1964 he moved into expanded cinema with the two-screen The Pink Auto, which played with and subverted the idea of epic cinema. But as experimental film became more established he did take funding from the BFI for films including Marvo Movie (1967). The First International Underground Film Festival (1970) included Rayday Film (1968-70), an elaborate semi-improvised presentation that used permutations of 8mm and 16mm projectors, 35mm slides, anything up to four actors plus different asynchronous soundtracks and live music.

The structuralist film-makers of the 1970s studied film's formal qualities and deconstructed the film-making process. Keen was interested up to a point but could never exclude visceral and emotional elements or his fascination with low art and myth, as in his persona of mad scientist Dr Gaz, and Jackie's roles as Vulvana or The Catwoman. Still, his work was shown at the London Film-Makers' Co-Op, which he had helped found in 1966, and in the Hayward Gallery's "Perspectives on Avant-Garde Film" (1978).

His longer films include White Dust (1970-72) and Mad Love (1972-78). This homage to Breton and the surrealists was inspired by finding a pile of 78s, although Keen thought the surrealists "were tone-deaf, mostly". He thought the future of art was surrealism and randomness; like the surrealists Keen became increasingly interested in eroticism, but this was out of joint with rising feminism and it did not help the reception of some of his films.

In the 1980s Keen and Jackie temporarily separated: there were fewer appearances from home movies and friends and family. Models and props became the basic elements, collage and superimposition the usual textures and absurdism a frequent aesthetic. The imagery and editing became more violent, and after The Dreams and Crimes of the Archduke (1979-84) his titles retreated into pop-art violent abstraction, as in Blatzom (1983-86), Kino Pulveriso (1993) and B-B-B Bom and Lifestorm, which he worked on through the 1990s. He hoped Channel 4 would broadcast his different versions of Artwar (1994) unannounced in between programmes, though they chose not to.

Eventually, having made over 70 films, he felt he had exhausted cinema and developed an ambivalent attitude: it had "taken over", his films "seem to compress it all and say it all, but they don't". Perhaps unhappy with cinema's temporal control of the viewer he saw them as "continuous dream time and then they stop." But he continued to, draw, paint, print, sculpt, assemble collages, write poetry and make books. However, they were rarely exhibited until recent shows in Paris and New York

In 2008 the BFI released a four-disc set of his films that reveals the full range of his work. In late 2012 there will be an installation of his work in the newly opened tanks of Tate Modern and a retrospective of his paintings at Brighton Museum.

Jeffrey John Spencer Keen, artist and film-maker: born: Trowbridge 26 November 1923; married 1956 Jackie Foulds (one daughter); died Brighton 21 June 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones
tvSeries 5, Episode 3 review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence