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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

John Keane

John Keane with his painting, The Moment, (1990-91)
--the dying-color, blood and guts version of Picasso's Guernica.
Warfare brought to the pristine, white walls of the art gallery.
In writing daily about "Art Now and Then" I don't often spent much time writing about the "now" part past the first or second paragraph. There are several good reasons for this, but chief among them is the fact that "art now" is a moving target, important to relate to, but a minefield when it comes to separating the "wheat" from the "chaff." John Keane knows a lot about minefields. He's often painted among them, or their symbolic equivalent. John Keane is (not was) a British Social Realist painter. When we talk about Social Realism as an art movement we are usually referring to the Americans Robert Henri, George Luks, the Ashcan School or John Sloan and his "Group of Eight" from the first decades of the 20th-century. All of which is fine, though it barely scratches the surface. There were Social Realists in virtually every country on earth before the "Great War," even stretching far to the East where Stalin made the style (if not its political ends) the official style of Mother Russia until his death in 1953.
A John Keane war photo: decimated palms like wounded warriors
among pristine streetlamps.
The Lie Cafe, 1989, John Keane
Insofar as painting goes, conventional wisdom would suggest that Stalin's death pretty much closed the book on the Social Realism movement in art. It didn't. So long as there is social injustice and those high-minded (or naive) artists who think they can combat it through there work, Social Realism art will persist, though probably not so much using canvas and paint as through other, more valid media such as photography in much the same manner as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, or Lewis Hine aroused the Great Depression era to action. Though John Keane is quite handy with a camera (above), especially in the high-stress world of war, terrorism, and civil insurrection ripped from the the social media headlines of military conflict "now"; he still knows how to sling paint (literally) as his style sometimes suggests. He's not a photo-journalist, not even an art-journalist. His work is relevant, vibrant, and fresh, but not that fresh. He was an history painting artist covering the Gulf War in 1990-91, but without the deadlines of his mass media cohorts.
The Other Cheek, 1989, John Keane
John Keane is sixty years old, which means he was born in 1954. Born in Hertfordshire, England, he was educated at Wellington College and Camberwell School of Art. Trained as a painter, Keane finished college in 1976 and has always been a political activist in the traditional, Social Realist sense of the word. He was of the British baby-boomer generation out to change the world, in his case, one brushstroke at a time. His early work depicted the violence of 1980s Northern Ireland in all its grizzly detail as seen in his 1989 The Other Cheek (above). But it wasn't until the 1990s that he made much of a dent in that goal, and even at that, the anti-war pacifist found what would seem a strange employer--the British Imperial War Museum. They sent him to the Mid-East to cover the relatively short prologue to the continuous unrest, death, and destruction we see there today. Judging from his work sent home (or created afterwards) they got their money's worth, and likely a good deal more than they bargained for. Keane, in his The Moment (top) depicted at close range the horrendous, unsurvivable instant a bomb explodes in Jerusalem's The Moment Cafe jettisoning mangled limbs, internal organs, and the massive spray of body fluids normally encountered only by those wearing red crosses or red crescents.

Ramallah, Ramallah , 2003, John Keane
Hopeless in Gaza 2, 2003, John Keane
Keane's Ramallah, Ramallah (above), is equally telling, though in a more symbolic manner, depicting two bloodstained hands in the window of the Ramallah police station where two Israeli reservists were torn to pieces by a mob. Keane did not stop with the end of the first Gulf War. He returned twice to document the plight of the Palestinians, this time bringing with him more than just his camera in using video, his laptop, and inkjet printers as he digitally composed, collaged, and painted his images. Even though there was no active fighting in the area, the footprints and hand prints of war were everywhere, especially in the war-torn Gaza area whence came his Hopeless in Gaza 2 (left), a nativity as deeply moving as any ever painted by Giotto, Correggio, or El Greco.

Children in Conflict, 2006, John Keane
More than a painting.
In more recent years, Keane has worked with Greenpeace, while also turning his multi-media paintings into traveling shows, such as "57 Hours in the House of Culture," dealing with the Chechen war, "Children in Conflict," (above) and "The Inconvenience of History," (below) dealing with the West Bank and Gaza, and most recently, "Guantanamerica" dealing with representation and dehumanization of detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Thanks to John Keane, Social Realism is not dead, only its original artists. Though dealing incessantly with death, and employing a style and working techniques far removed from Sloan, Henri, or Luks, in many ways, his form of "realism" is more powerful than anything these first "art socialists" could ever have imagined in their worst nightmares.

The Inconvenience of History, 2003, John Keane



  1. This has little to do with this John Keane post but I thought you might find it interesting: It's from the arxiv blog at MIT.

  2. Wes--

    Thanks for the link. I'm also interested in AI, though I'd never seen it used in this context before. The comparison of Bazille and Rockwell, is fascinating, and not beyond the realm of possibility--Rockwell knew his art history. Bazille seems to me to have been a painter that would have interested him. It's people like you that make this effort worthwhile.--Jim Lane

  3. Ah, that's interesting that you're interested in AI; I would not have guessed that. My interest in AI is due to the Virtual Reality Hypothesis ( As the famed mathematician Gregory Chaitin has often pointed out, God couldn't really create the Universe with mathematics because there's too much randomness in math; however, the Universe could very well be generated with a precise programming language. It would be a virtual reality generated on a quantum substrate, or, in the language of Hinduism, virtual thoughts in the mind of God (Brahman).

    Here's another link you may find of interest which is, not coincidentally, related to this post: Gee whiz, that's a long one?

    I too found the "Lot's Wife" painting quite compelling. Perhaps the title refers to the actions of Lot's wife, her looking back on evil. It would seem a sound inference that the tracks refer to the trains carrying the Jews to their death. One of my all time favorite musical albums is "The Painkiller/The Executioner" with John Zorn on sax, Bill Laswell on Bass, and Mitch Harris on percussion; it seems to be Zorn's way of exorcising the demons of the Holocaust. I also find the serpent in the Kiefer painting "Resurrexit" interesting; what is it a reference to? Could it possibly be a reference to the Feminine Serpent power presumed to be present in all sentient beings, transformation of which leads to "The Creation of Adam?"

    In his “Creation of Adam,” Michelangelo places “God,” represented by a common metaphor for wisdom at the time, an elderly, bearded man, inside the human brain approximately where the pineal gland would be; many art critics and historians call this the “Uterine Brain” and erroneously interpret it to mean that Michelangelo was suggesting “God” controls humankind through the mind. “Creation of Adam” has nothing to do with the literal interpretation of the Biblical story either, rather, it’s esoteric wisdom leading to Gnosis hidden in plain view. Adam represents “Everyman (woman)” who has “fallen” into the world of duality – broken symmetry, to use a mathematical expression – but Adam, the ideal, also exists in the Garden of Eden, representative of a super-symmetric state of bliss which transcends duality; a place where everything equals everything – Thou art That! When man (woman) falls into conventional existence, an existence characterized by broken symmetry, they have within a super-symmetric seed, the enlightened point of origin. This is often depicted in art and mythology as a coiled serpent (coincidentally, it has been rumored that Michelangelo was a member of the Illuminati organization, The Brotherhood of the Serpent). The journey to enlightenment is a function mapping the broken symmetry to super-symmetry; practically speaking, fallen man (woman) has the seed of super-symmetry in their prostate (Skene’s) gland and when they follow the esoteric instruction said super-symmetric seed undergoes a transformation, the lead becomes gold, and ends up dwelling in the pineal gland. The fallen man (woman), who dwells in Hell or Samsara, is allowed through the gate and enters Heaven or Nirvana; "Phall if you but will, rise you must," in the words of James Joyce.

    - this comment is too long, I must divide it -

  4. - perhaps I'm being a bit verbose -

    When Michelangelo painted “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, many of the bishops and cardinals were offended at all of the nudity; one cardinal even suggested to the Pope that it was better suited to a bathhouse. The Pope sent a letter via courier to Michelangelo telling him to “make it right.” Michelangelo sent a letter back to the Pope telling the Pope, “make nature right and art will soon follow.” Michelangelo’s point was that the problem wasn’t with the art, rather, it was with nature – the bishops and cardinals. The bishops and cardinals weren’t illuminated; they were still dwelling in the state of broken symmetry. If they were illuminated they would feel no need to hide nature’s beauty behind a cloak of deceit; they would understand the metaphors. Apparently the Pope at the time was illuminated as well because “The Last Judgment” remained as Michelangelo painted it until after Michelangelo died and even then there were some mysterious and rather humorous difficulties experienced during its defacement. I can't help but wonder if the serpent in the Keifer painting, obviously a reference to "rise you must," isn't a reference to this esoteric serpent energy?

    With regards,
    Wes Hansen

  5. Wes--

    Thanks for contributing the background material here. I'm afraid you're into all this way too deep for me. Some of what you mention regarding Michelangelo I was aware of, but this being a blog written for "light" information, and a general readership, I don't get into the depth of your observations so I can't comment on them with any degree of understanding or validity. I do appreciate your insights and "verbosity."

  6. Jim,

    Please accept my most humble apology; my intent was not to offend you or your readership. I thoroughly appreciate your exceptional blog and wish you nothing but the best. I simply found the Kiefer works rather compelling (I was unfamiliar with his work) and lost myself in enthusiasm . . .

    With regards,
    Wes Hansen

  7. Wes--

    No need to apologize, I was in no way offended. The kind of enthusiasm you got lost in is precisely that which I hope to stir in my readers, it's just that I try to know a lot about a few things and a little about lots of things so very often my knowledge in the depth you were exemplifying gets overehelmed. Please keep reading and writing, I enjoy your comments.--Jim