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


John Riley
Sunday 01 July 2012 18:00

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.

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