Exploring Jeff Keen

Saturday 19 November launched the lead-up to next year’s Jeff Keen exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery,  with a day of talks at the Old Courtroom. Arranged as part of this year’s Brighton Film Festival, Cinecity, the day was introduced by Dr Frank Gray of Screen Archive South East and Cinecity.

The event, entitled Exploring Jeff Keen – Brighton’s Master of Avant-Garde Film, had an array of speakers, from scholars and colleagues to close friends and Keen’s daughter, Stella Keen.

Dr Gray explained that this was the beginning of a journey into the study and appreciation of Keen. After showing a short extract of the multi-screen ‘Diary Films’, 1972 – 76, consisting of Lost Moment, Lone Star, Godzilla Last of The Creatures and Rosa Camina, Dr Gray left even complete newcomers to Keen’s work wanting more.

Stella Keen speaking. Behind her is a picture of her father, Jeff Keen, on Brighton Beach.
Stella Keen speaking, with picture of her father, Jeff Keen, on Brighton Beach.

Stella Keen followed, stage-named Stella Starr by her father, who not only starred in many of her father’s films, but also took on the role of camera operator at times.

She spoke of her upbringing on St. Michael’s Place, Brighton. She reminisced hilariously about how there was always something creative on the go, and described the smell of melting plastic hanging in the air from the most recent doll that her father blowtorched for one of his films. She described how the family would search around the North Laine, which at the time was very run down, for props. Even the Whitehawk tip was a regular site of play for Keen family and friends – many of Keen’s films were located on the tip, as it contained seemingly infinite props that he could use for his performances.

Stella compared life with Keen to a ‘crazy Beckett play’.  She also went on to describe her father’s pioneer spirit and how he instilled in her the feeling that anything is possible.

Stella Keen performing in her father's film
Stella Keen performing in her father’s film

Jeff Keen was brought up in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, and Stella described him as a ‘typical nostalgic English man’. His mother was a nurse and his father a butler, who often sang opera and would make costumes and dress up to entertain the local villagers. His father exerted a profound influence on Jeff Keen’s imagination.

Keen served in World War Two in the Special Ops division. Stella described how he loved being asked to do tasks such as strap a jet-propelled rocket onto a tank, as he loved the explosion that predictably ensued.

Stella explained the difficulty in pinpointing the influences of her father’s work as they are so vast. However, through an amazing Powerpoint presentation, Stella illustrated Keen’s influences. They spanned from Nordic mythology to William Blake; from modern European artists like Dubuffet, Miro and Picasso, to comic books, Hollywood, and Disney films. Stella focused on key themes in Keens works such as the lone hero, war and destruction, nature, and play and chance.

Helpfully, Stella insisted that Keen should be understood first and foremost as a Surrealist, even though he is typically defined as a pop artist.

Examples of how the language of cartoons has influenced Keen’s art.
Examples of how the language of cartoons has influenced Keen’s art.

Stella ended by talking about recently having to catalogue her father’s art. She described how even his bathtub was crammed full of work. Through cataloguing, Stella also found beautiful drawings and collages that had never been seen before.

Up next was William Fowler, Curator of the Artist’s Moving Image of the British Film Institute. Fowler described the process of creating a DVD retrospective of Keen’s works (Gazwrx: The Films of Jeff Keen [2009]). He insisted that Keen’s work was best understood as art that was devoted to erasing the distinctions between life and art. Fowler’s screening of Keen’s The Return of Silverhead (1980),fully demonstrated his thesis, as the film was centred around domestic scenes of Keen’s family visit to an air show, interspersed with Keen’s costumed friends frolicking in the countryside.

Following Fowler was Duncan Reekie, author of Subversion: the Definitive History of Underground Cinema. Reekie talked about Keen in the context of American underground filmmakers of the 1960s such as Jack Smith and Andy Warhol. Reekie reminded us how artists in the 1960s were starting to experiment with discontinuous narratives, stop-frame animation, and pixilation. He praised Keen for using all of these methods in one 8mm film, which was difficult, and how underestimated Keen was generally. Reekie believes that if Keen had perhaps been working in New York instead of Brighton, he would have been recognised as one of the most prolific and groundbreaking moving image artists around.

As I said earlier, the short clips that had been played throughout the day always left the audience wanting more. This desire was met during the lunch break – an audience member requested that the films be screened for those who wished to stay over the lunch break to watch them. Naturally there were a large number of people who preferred to enter the mind and world of Keen instead of going out on a sunny Saturday to grab some lunch!

After the break, Damien Toal, Jeff Keen’s video editor from 1989 – 2002, spoke of editing with Keen as a process that exploited and challenged the amount of information the viewer can take in. Toal described their work together as an ‘eyeblaze’: there are no ‘timid gestures’ in Keen’s films, Toal said. The works are more about the artist’s interest in seeing how much he could see as opposed to creating film solely to entertain.

Title card from Tranz Blatz
Title card from Tranz Blatz

The audience was then treated to a short film by Arthur Lager, who Stella introduced as her father’s No.1 fan. The film was titled The Rape of The Arthurapods (1998). It was a great example of how someone inspired and influenced by Keen is using these influences in their own work.

Finishing up the day were Jenny Lund, Curator of Fine Art and Suzie Plumb, Curator of Toys, Film & Media.

Suzie presented the audience with a brief history of Brighton’s role the as a centre for early film production. She talked about the 1896Brightonschool of film makers, focusing on James Williamson and George Albert Smith. In 1897 Smith set up a film studio in St. Anns Wells Gardens and often filmed there. In homage to Smith, Jeff Keen has also filmed in the gardens. The groundbreaking nature of Smith’s work at the time included the first use of the close-up shot and the use of point of view shots.

Film stills from George Albert Smith’s, Grandma’s Reading Glass, As Seen Through A Telescope (1990)
Film stills from George Albert Smith’s, Grandma’s Reading Glass, As Seen Through A Telescope (1990)

Jenny Lund explained how the Jeff Keen exhibition in the Fine Art Gallery at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, provisionally entitled A True Brighton Original, will consists of a display of his works on paper from the 1950s onwards and an expanded cinema project. She addressed the challenge of displaying Keen’s art and films in the institution, given the films’ original reception in much more anarchic and interactive environments. Aware that it is impossible to recreate the performance-based screenings as they originally took place, Brighton Museum will work with Jeff Keen himself and his daughter Stella to convey the multidisciplinary and multisensory quality of Keen’s work.

Jenny concluded the day with a showing one of Keen’s famous expanded cinema works Rayday Film, 1968 – 70.

Still from Rayday Film, 1968-1970
Still from Rayday Film, 1968-1970

Jeff Keen recently exhibited at the Galerie du Centre in Paris and there are plans for further exhibitions in New York City and at Tate Modern next year.

Keep your eye out for more information, coming soon, about the Jeff Keen exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, which will launch on White Night 2012 and continue through February 2013.

Jennifer Milarski,

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