Whitehot Magazine

Steve Keene: Essay & Interview by Ryan McGinness

Work by Steve Keene.

By RYAN McGINNESS, July 2021 

I had just moved to Manhattan in 1994 and was getting graphic design jobs to stay alive. I had a few connections to the indie music scene from work I had already done for friends’ bands while I was in Pittsburgh. I was designing record covers, logos, and gig posters. The hustle was to drop off one of my portfolios (I had 3 in rotation) at record labels to be reviewed by their art departments and pick it back up after a few days. One of those record labels was Zero Hour. Dan Efram hired me to design their logo, ads, posters, and many of their records. “Designing” record covers often meant either creating all the artwork, photography, and design myself or, more often, using prescribed ingredients to put together a pre-press mechanical that a printer could use. 

I met Steve Keene through Zero Hour, when I designed the album package for a compilation of live recordings from Threadwaxing Space, an alternative art space in downtown Manhattan. I was given Steve’s paintings to use on the cover of the album. The paintings were of Thomas Jefferson and inscribed, “THOMAS JEFFERSON 1801-1809 GWAR TRIBUTE ALL AGES BORN APRIL 13, 1743.” There was also some smaller biographical text at the bottom. All that text was painted and integrated into the picture. I knew Thomas Jefferson from history, and I knew the performance art-band GWAR from Virginia. Still, the message confounded my expectations for album cover art. 

The conversations about the album design revolved around ensuring that it maintained a certain aesthetic—a certain look. I knew the look the record label wanted, and it wasn’t one that I had embraced. I knew the look from other indie rock records, mostly by Pavement, a band Steve knew personally. (Steve’s painting graced Pavement’s 1995 release, Wowee Zowee.) Pavement’s record covers confused me. I had just finished spending four years professionalizing my interest in art and design. I thought I was doing something radical by applying “high design” to the alternative counter culture. This was an approach some of my design heroes were taking—Peter Saville for Joy Division and Factory Records, Vaughan Oliver for the Pixies and all the other 4AD bands, and Malcolm Garrett for the Buzzcocks, to name a few. It was high-bar design for low-bar music. But those Pavement record covers (Slanted & Enchanted (1992), Westing (By Musket And Sextant) (1993), and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)) were lo-fi graphics for lo-fi music. It was decidedly unprofessional. And yet, it still seemed calculated. From my jaded point-of-view, the look was a self-conscious way to reflect a kind of music which was also decidedly unprofessional.

Regardless, with the Threadwaxing album, it was not my place to assert an aesthetic. I was a hired gun and just happy to have the work. And, I was happy to meet Steve. His paintings were also decidedly unprofessional. We took snapshots (not professional photographs) of his paintings resting on a couch in the record label’s office. We included the couch in the final image. We glued the snapshots to brown kraft paper and wrote the album title above. We kept the penciled crop marks. It all felt a bit silly to me.

Work by Steve Keene.

Steve’s paintings had come to represent and embody a late-1990s Lower East Side GenX aesthetic. His paintings have been featured on numerous other indie rock albums for bands, including The Apples in Stereo, Bunnybrains, Silver Jews, and Pavement. What Raymond Pettibon is to punk rock, Steve Keene is to indie rock. His paintings could be purchased in the same bars the bands played. Steve even hosted bands and parties in his studio, where he sold his pay-what-you-wish paintings. You just dropped money into a wishing well in the center of the studio and carried your painted panels home. I bought so many at that time that I would give them away as gifts. Instead of bringing a $10 bottle of wine to dinner, I would bring a $10 Steve Keene painting from my cache. That is how Steve wants his paintings to operate. Not as precious commodities, but as freely traded trinkets. They are passed around, not without care, but with lots of love. His paintings became a ubiquitous part of hipster chic squalor decor. Owning a Steve Keene painting is not a heavy burden. It is fun and joyous. Regretfully, I gave all mine away. They were so light that they just seemed to have floated out of my apartment. When he had an exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in 2017, I was happy to replenish my stock, especially since the prices remained between $5 and $20.  

His price point reflects his philosophy. There is no barrier to entry. Art for everyone. “Democratizing fine art” is a phrase often thrown around with virtuous pride by artists and art market facilitators. This righteousness is fueled by the belief that art is expensive and therefore only for the “elite.” However, there is plenty of inexpensive art. Just go to any thrift store or flea market. The problem is, nobody desires art until it has been assigned a premium value by the art market. The solution to broadening the art audience is often the creation of secondary works that support the prima facia works that exist as insurance and assurance. Prints, multiples, posters, and other such price-point spectrum extenders are safe ways to “democratize fine art.” Buying art outside the art market requires critical thinking skills to determine if the work resonates with you based on your own values, independent of external input. This is what sets Steve Keene collectors apart from other art collectors. And the fact that Steve keeps his prices at $5-$20 per painting sets him apart from other artists. Steve Keene is the real deal when it comes to ensuring his work is accessible.

Since the 1990s, I have recalibrated my appreciation for that GenX aesthetic. It is not slacker laziness. Rather, I would characterize it as a light touch. It’s what keeps me wanting to live with Steve’s paintings (and, it’s what keeps me listening to Pavement). It is not effortlessness, rather grace disguised as slack. It’s knowing more and doing less. I see it when I watch Steve paint. I bet Steve has never bent a brush bristle. He doesn’t have to. 

While watching him paint, I think of Bob Ross. Steve could have his own mesmerizing television show. (It would have a good soundtrack.) With one efficient brushstroke at a time, Steve does not duplicate, but rather replicates his source image in his own hand. The seriality of the works—many paintings, all the same, but each different and unique—is Warholian. Bob Ross meets Andy Warhol. That’s my “SK TV” show pitch. 

And, as is the case with Warhol, Steve does not produce singular “masterpieces.” This seemingly anti-art gesture is deliberate. Let’s call them one-of-a-kind multiples. Or, monopaintings. He often likens his production to that of a baker’s. All the doughnuts are the same-ish. However, Steve’s approach is sincere. Andy’s “factory” model was a sarcastic critique. And also unlike Warhol, Steve has a passion for dragging a brush along a surface. He has a romantic passion for the painting process. He is a blue-collar artist for whom the work is the reward for the work. Those hand-pulled brushstrokes are Steve’s visual language and vocabulary. He is a responsive painter constantly reacting to his previous mark-assertions. He is an action painter. He is a real-time painter. Warhol claimed he wanted to be a machine, but Keene is a machine. 

Steve’s approach to painting is like mine. He bounces from picture plane to picture plane, making multiple paintings in parallel at the same time. It is a non-linear approach to making pictures. He builds his paintings by layering brushstrokes the same way I silkscreen layers of images. It’s no surprise that Steve studied silkscreening. His pictures are the result of adding brushstrokes that are overlapping and woven together, from coarse to fine. Forms with shadows and highlights emerge as the pictures come into focus. The pictures are built with a calm but swift sophistication. His fulcrums are his shoulder, elbow, and wrist, depending on the desired scale of brushstroke. These three levels of precision allow Steve to achieve a range of details to discern, with some areas of the paintings more visually viscous than others. 

Steve’s paintings are not re-worked, labored over, or even contemplated upon completion. Steve doesn’t sweat it. Like Georges Seurat, Steve simply applies the system. The image processing and painting processes have been distilled down and honed over the years. Pictorially, his images are simplified and broken down into brushstroke units that approach the symbolic. Steve’s vision for his version of a picture is maintained in his mind throughout the course of creating the multiple paintings based on that one vision. He sees his sets of paintings through to the end. When he is done with a batch, he does it again. Rinse and repeat: 

Step 1: Cut plywood into manageable sizes, each roughly the same size.

Step 2: Sand edges for easier handling and exchange.

Step 3: Set up wood panels on easels.

Step 4: Select source image.

Step 5: Select color palette.

Step 6: Envision image solution to be painted.

Step 7: Deconstruct envisioned image into brushstroke units.

Step 8: Apply brush strokes to build image solutions, from large to small.

Step 9: Select text options.

Step 10: Apply text to pictures, and sign paintings.

While this 10-step program seems to have all the efficiency of a McDonald’s preparations manual, artistic decisions are made at each step. So, only Steve can run the program. It is a system that allows for numerous unique solutions—now approaching a million served, each branded with his “SK” signature. As Steve runs his prescribed program, he is careful to keep his output on-brand and dependable. 

Steve’s paintings work well in reproduction since their scale can be extrapolated from the brush strokes. His clearly defined opaque brush strokes are his image-units. They comprise his resolution. Steve’s paintings have a “strokes-per-inch” resolution that can be seen with the naked eye. His resolution is human-scale, but his subjects are not. His subjects are close to one-to-one in scale to their source, but his sources are reproductions that are already reduced down from our real world.

Steve’s subject matter is just as layered and tangled as his brushstrokes. First and foremost, Steve paints pictures of pictures. This may seem simple enough, but it gets wonderfully complicated fast, because his paintings are not pictures in and of themselves. Rather, Steve paints our shared reality as it is expressed through reproductions. Steve paints the simulated world. He paints the shadows on the wall. He paints our designed and constructed world of pre-cropped and pre-selected images. But this is not appropriation, since the source images are filtered through his brush strokes. They become something new, while the narratives remain. (The rare exception of when pictures fold in on themselves: Take the case of a reproduction of a Steve Keene painting on an album cover that finds its way back into Steve’s pool of source images. Wowee Zowee, for example, is a cul-de-sac that folds in on itself. The album (featuring his painting) was painted in series by Steve a few years after the album was initially published.) 

Steve’s paintings move beyond the images depicted; Steve’s subject is painting itself, as his brushstrokes are not only evident, but come to the fore and dominate the picture plane. His brushstrokes are fetishized symbols of painting that become layered signifiers of painting. His pictures become a simulation of painting while simultaneously existing as paintings. So, Steve not only paints pictures of pictures, he paints pictures of painted pictures, based on printed pictures. “Painting,” therefore, is the subject matter of his paintings. And since those brushstrokes are uniquely Steve’s, he is the real subject of his own work. All of Steve’s paintings are self-portraits.

Why is this important to parse out? Because society has given rise to this kind of artist. Steve Keene is an artist of our time. We are awash in a world of secondary and tertiary images that no longer degrade when propagated. We can no longer tell an original from a copy. Image replication, duplication, and reproduction reach a dead-end in Steve’s paintings. His work arrests and traps images in paint on finite panels. His paintings are image-objects. They are images that can only be held to behold, one human at a time.  And in asserting his authorship with his signature “SK” (especially en recto), Steve stands as an individual against the sea of anonymously created images. This is why subject matters. Because, Steve matters. Because, you matter. Steve’s paintings are human-to-human pictures. 

When Steve is ready for Step 4 (see above), he pulls from his pool of collected source images. He decides which images go into the pool, and he decides which images come out to be painted. However, he is purposefully bound by decisions other people have already made. He is selecting from the selected. The advantage is that his source images are already designed to be seen. They are made with an audience in mind. Steve claims that the picture’s subject matter doesn’t matter. For him, the source material is incidental, but I’m not so sure. He claims to eschew content and subject matter, but that is impossible. He is still making decisions. Perhaps because those decisions come easily to him, they seem less labored. Steve values labor more than quick decision-making that is informed by a lifetime of insight. The question remains: Is Steve sincere about his subject matter? 

Work by Steve Keene.

Themes emerge among the subjects of the source images. They are mostly figurative, often historical (aren’t all images of the past?), and most of his paintings are in portrait mode. His paintings rarely depict perspective, and when they do, it is of a pre-flattened perspective as defined by the source image. Steve makes paintings with an audience in mind. He likes to give the people what they want. People like people. These are paintings as entertainment. As consumables. As products.

If we had to settle on a dominant subject matter or theme, it is undoubtedly music. Steve often paints album covers. Although albums are not depicted as objects (and certainly not as trompe-l’œil). Rather, Steve paints the pictures on album covers. The edges of the album covers disappear and are replaced by the edges of his wood panels. His paintings are actually “covers.” His paintings are his versions of other people’s pictures. He is a cover band, but a very good one that actually deconstructs and then re-creates the original. His work is not a simulation but an entirely new performance.

In fact, it’s all a performance—from Steve’s parallel painting in private or public to the consumer flipping through the products and making selections. Shopping is part of the performance, since the act of selecting from the batches of paintings is participating in the art. Discerning between the nuanced differences within groupings of paintings is participating in the art. And, exchanging money for the paintings is participating in the art. The purchase punctuates the performance. This is consumer-based art, and anyone can participate. 

This performance has no boundary since his entire practice is the artistic gesture. The individual paintings are just residue from the expansive performance. Steve has painted more than 300,000 paintings, but according to him, he has made and continues to work on only one painting. The individual plywood panels are just puzzle pieces that together make up his one masterpiece. His paintings are a super-organism, together as one but simultaneously individual parts. The mere-exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. Each painting that goes out into the world contributes to the whole and increases the value of the entire project. 

With his assembly-line painting approach, Steve is mass-producing his work for the masses. Accessibility is at the core of this whole artistic gesture. Steve keeps his paintings at everything-must-go prices. And, yet, he manages to stay just barely ahead of the demand. A secondary market has emerged over the years, but Steve keeps it in check by never increasing his primary prices. While his work falls very comfortably within all conservative definitions of art, Steve’s transgressive pricing transcends the art market. Therefore, for many art market makers, the work fails to qualify as a kind of art for their system. (An interesting side note is that the market for Steve’s paintings is extremely stable.)

How can an artist make and sell work within an art market that cannot accommodate him? The answer is, Steve Keene operates outside that system. Steve does not reject the art market. His approach is not anti-blue chip. His practice is not a “fuck-you” to the system. It is simply another approach, outside the conventional system. Steve is not playing a market game, and he’s not subverting the art market. Steve is simply expressing his philosophy in his approach to selling his work. Steve demotes the artist’s status to widget-maker. Like many of the indie bands of his ilk, Steve does not want to be a rock god.

When one owns a work of art, one owns a share of stock in the artist. Steve has well over 100,000 shareholders. That many collectors at those prices means his work is trading like a penny stock. It is a market situation no dealer wants to touch. That is one of the reasons why I admire Steve. He is untouchable. He is unattainable.

I am a fan of Steve Keene’s, and I worry about his legacy. In a society that correlates cultural value to market value, an artist of Steve’s character will likely go uncelebrated. And in an art market largely premised on aggrandizing and monetizing the mystical power of art and the artist, Steve keeps it real. That is Steve’s sacrifice in order to stay true to his vision.  

His fate is that of the “artist’s artist.”  

I visited Steve’s studio in the midst of the pandemic. We both took responsible precautions. He met me outside his studio as my car pulled up. Steve has the entire building. It’s a cavernous live/work space. It’s a total Steve Keene environment. His studio (saturated with paintings hung salon-style) is in the front of the space, and his home (outfitted in custom SK-designed furnishings and built-ins) is in the back. It is a complete world. I love it. I had actually been there more than 20 years earlier at one of Steve’s “wishing well” parties. I think Apples in Stereo were playing live. I bought as many paintings as I could, put them under my arm, and dropped the cash in the plywood well in the middle. Easy peasy. Buying Steve’s works has always been easy. His paintings have always been inextricably linked to commerce.

Work by Steve Keene.

Ryan McGinness: In selling your work at clubs where bands were playing, you immediately placed your paintings in a commercial context. Furthermore, the paintings were so nicely priced, it’s as if the process of buying your paintings completed the work. And, I have always given away the paintings that I have purchased, adding to them even more utility. The work seems to be so entangled with exchange that the paintings must be used in this way. The paintings become tokens to be exchanged.

Steve Keene: If you wanted to promote your band, or you wanted to let people know that you were doing a poetry reading, you’d leave flyers at the bookstore or the coffee shop. The people who really blew me away were people in bands, because they were doing their art on the run. They had to load up their station wagon and travel six hours and hope 50 people would show up for the show. And they’d have a crate of CDs or singles or something like that back then. They tried to get the merch out. I’ve mostly shown at one-night stands where I bring my stuff, and I make it super cheap, so I don’t have to bring it all home—so the work just goes into the world.

RM: The the one-night stand would be the experience, like the performance of a band. And, the paintings would be the commemorative merchandise of that experience.

SK: And people would only see them together for that one event. I consider myself as more of an installation artist. If people see fewer than like 800 of my paintings at one time, I think, they don’t get it. Don’t look at the individual ones, because they’re not that good! 

RM: So, that is key in understanding the work! The paintings must be seen in large quantities in order to be fully appreciated. When they’re isolated as individual units, as individual paintings, they exist only as souvenirs of the experience. 

SK: That makes me the happiest. 

RM: Would it be less than ideal if someone owned a painting without having experienced it as part of the original litter?

SK: I mean, I’m always flattered when people like my pictures, but I always think of them as part of something else. For me, they’re like diary entries. It’s everything I do. I try to take the worry away from myself. If I just crank out the art, and try the best I can, and accept that certain ones are gonna look good and certain ones are gonna be crummy, then that gives me an infinite amount of energy to keep working. To not edit myself is the goal. It was incredibly liberating when I was younger to come to that point. 

RM: You use the word “worry,” as if there were an underlying existential angst in trying to make a painting. And I assume that’s kind of what you’re getting at. When you can make many at a time so fluidly, what you’re doing is making control groups. These are control group paintings. At least one is going to be good. Again, kind of like thinking about them as giving birth to a litter. It’s a numbers game. Is that kind of what you’re getting at?  

SK: Yeah, but also, if they all look bad, then they don’t really look bad. It’s like creating a new language. It might not be the language that you want to read. If everything is not perfect, then that’s just the record of the event. 

RM: The subject matter becomes incidental. The real artistic gesture is in the production. 

SK: My favorite kind of art is, like, Sol LeWitt’s and stuff like that. Where it’s just set-up with an idea.

RM: A systems-based approach. 

SK: Yeah, right. And so, I know sometimes my pictures are like, a little goofy. But what’s the difference between 1000 goofy pictures and 1000 intersecting lines? I think it does the same job. 

RM: I was even thinking of Georges Seurat and how he said he simply applies his system. You do the same thing. You have a systematic approach to your production. And I was also thinking of his work in relation to your brushstrokes, or units of resolution. Seurat’s paintings are purposefully low-resolution with a coarse dpi. You build your paintings by layering your brushstrokes in an additive manner. I assume you never subtract from the surface—except for the newer CNC works [Computer Numerical Control—a process by which a material is cut with a router based on a digital drawing] .

SK: Yeah, those are a different thing. The older I got, I felt I needed to make something that was past my body and that didn’t come from my body. And these don’t. I make them on the computer. 

RM: Yes, and they’re line-based. Your paintings are the result of building and layering shapes. These newer works are all about line drawings subtracted out of the material.

SK: Yeah, I make these little models in Rhino [3-D computer graphics program]. And then I flatten the models and send them to the router. To me, it’s almost like making a movie or something as compared to making a picture. I would get depressed like 15 years ago looking at Pixar movies, because I’m like, wow, I have no idea how that’s done. It’s not painted, you know. They say it’s made on a computer. And what’s that? I kind of do the computer stuff for fun. 

RM: But you’re using Rhino, which is a sophisticated program. You could use something simpler. 

SK: Yeah. It’s just very painterly to me. And it’s funny, because people say, “Wow, you draw great, Steve.” But you know, I didn’t really draw those. I just used the shapes. My shaky hand didn’t make those shapes. And that’s what turns me on about it. It’s separated from me. 

RM: Well, my definition of drawing is that drawing is recorded gesture. And that’s what these are. And I see these as extensions of you. 

SK: Yeah, I see you. But they’re not. That’s why I like doing them. If it were just another way for me to do what I already do, then I would just say, “Why bother?” And I don’t really sell them, because I don’t have an audience for them. They’re big. I’d like to be able to stick them in a large room in order to see them all at once. 

RM: Of course. They’re also different in scale. I remember seeing them in your Marlborough Gallery exhibition in 2017. That was a very different context than where I first came across your work in spaces like Threadwaxing Space and other alternative art and music venues. I start this essay remembering how we worked on the Threadwaxing Space album cover, and how the whole aesthetic confounded me. It was a very calculated nonchalance. Kind of like your paintings. 

SK: It’s very formulaic. The whole indie rock thing. You create an indoor and an outdoor space, and you only really let a few people in. 

RM: There’s a statement on your website. In fact, it’s the only content on your site besides a link to buy paintings (6 paintings, randomly selected, for $70.) “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” What are you asserting with that?

SK: It’s a Shakespeare quote. It’s a way of telling people, “Oh, don’t be afraid to buy from me.” And also, it’s like, whenever I start trying to be really good, that’s when I get in trouble. I’m worrying about if it’s good or bad or if people are going to like it. If you buy from my website, it’s sight-unseen, so I’m responsible for making something that they think they know already. I can’t change my style. However, I can bend a certain way, but really I have to keep it…

RM: …on brand? 

SK: And I think that’s great, because when you lose yourself in a specific role, then there’s an infinite number of ways to be expressive. For me, this is the torture I have to go through…

RM: Well, it’s torture, but it also seems meditative.

SK: Yeah, it is. When I first started doing this, it was like levitating. I don’t have to think about anything. I just spend the time going through it.

RM: It sounds like a flow state when you lose track of all sense of time. 

SK: Yeah, I mean, nowadays it becomes a game. Like playing basketball for 3 hours. 

RM: And not realizing it. 

SK: Yeah. And then when you have kids, it’s a different time. Having kids didn’t allow me to be in my own fantasy world. And then, the internet is like the worst thing to ever happen, because you’re always checking your mail and looking at images. I could work for 12 hours without thinking about anything. And now I think that’s the reason why I want to do this stuff. My main goal in life is trying to make both sides make sense. 

RM: Both sides of what?

SK: The process and the art. I can only see a few hundred of these things at a time. And I build all the structures for hanging them. I consider those part of the new stuff too. I used to build it all by hand. But since I do it on the computer, it’s really a sublime thing. It’s such a turn-on to make these abstract shapes that fit together, but they serve a purpose for me. They’re houses for my art. Like that stage for the Marlborough show, and the PPOW booth at the Frieze Art Fair. That was great. You know, those kinds of things don’t happen to me often.

RM: Well, I guess that brings up another topic—the opportunities to participate in a more formal art world and having to address all the trappings that go with it. Your practice stands against that system. Or rather, it doesn’t work well in that system.

SK: It doesn’t work well with that system. I think about that a lot. And, not to sound pretentious, but I feel like what I do is like Christo—the works bleeds into the world. It’s part of the landscape. Every week I send out about 200 paintings. The feeling is that it just falls out of me.

RM: It’s a conceptually-driven practice that is hard to commodify. I mean, it uses commerce, but only in a way that the transactions are part of the work. The money that is exchanged is purposefully incidental. 

SK: Maybe a gallery can make some money if they sold like 700 at the same time or something like that, because it’s an installation. But, it’s really about the performance, and the fun of it is that it has become this populist community thing. Everybody grabs some paintings. That’s the biggest turn-on. It’s like a restaurant. A really happening restaurant. Everybody wants something from it.

RM: I want to talk about your system and how it is premised on this set of controlled variables. And yet there are these uncontrolled variables, like the brushstrokes. 

SK: Right. I try to keep it as regimented as possible.

RM: And also variables like format, color palette, and subject matter. Your subject matter is pictures. You’re making pictures of pictures.

SK: Good! I’m glad you get that. That’s so important to me. 

RM: Why? 

SK: Because I want it to be kind of like,… almost pretend. I like folk art and junk store and thrift store paintings. I remember this exhibition by Jim Shaw at Metro Pictures in 1991. He had a kind of, like yard sale painting show. It was his art show, but of his collection of junk art that he had been buying forever. My art seems kind of perfect when it’s in somebody’s house in the suburbs, or in the country in somebody’s apartment. After they’ve gone to a junk store and saw other pictures that kind of look like mine. I like that they are pictures of pictures. I very rarely try to make up anything. If I do, I always get myself into trouble thinking this is gonna be really good.

RM: But, then again, you are painting from life—a life of simulation. In painting pictures of pictures, you’re making decisions that are inventive. Primarily, you’re always going to be making something flat. Even the perspectives within the primary sources are flattened. They are simulations of perspectives, instead of being in perspective, if that makes any sense. Furthermore, you’re painting pictures, but without the border-defining picture planes. Your source is a picture with edges, but you pull out just the picture part within the edges and translate them to new borders—the edges of the wood panels. All those decisions are from your imagination—your ability to imagine your translations. I got so caught up in those ideas in your paintings when I saw the paintings of the Wowee Zowee album cover [Pavement, 1995]. Not the painting that was depicted on the cover, but your subsequent paintings made after the album came out that were of the album cover. It makes those later paintings reproductions of reproductions of reproductions. 

SK: Yeah, that’s fun. I love it. It just becomes like a hall of mirrors. But I also want the pictures to be objects. You know, for me, they’re like objects more than images. 

RM: Right. That’s actually very important to note, because these are paintings that are handled but not “art-handled.” They are handled like products. They are handed over. There is a very considered tactile quality to the paintings. Do you always predetermine the sizes and proportions of your paintings?

SK: I try to mix it up. Sometimes they’re all identical sizes. I’ll be doing the same image, but some will be bigger, and some will be smaller.

RM: So, over here, we have the panels all lined up and ready to go. [Walking over to a large custom-built easel.] And the variables are controlled here, spatially, right? 

SK: Yeah, but because I’m moving so fast, I’m not even conscious of all that. I’m just so busy doing this. When they’re different sizes, then the whole thing changes. I’m not really conscious of it. 

RM: You make the changes as you go. You must have envisioned not just your translation of the source, but multiple translations of the source to fit the multiple wood panels, which are all different sizes, even if just slightly. That is an incredible amount of information to retain at once. You must have multiple visions at the same time.

SK: I have to systematize it. 

RM: And you have to hone it as you go. 

SK: Yeah, they start out real blobby…

RM: …and you get more precise and switch to finer detailed brushes. But, as you go, you build these pictures in a non-linear way, hopping from painting to painting.

SK: You’ve got to try to pull it together, because you’re trying to… I guess I like that feeling where, it looks good, and I hardly did anything to make it look that way.

RM: There’s an efficiency in the mark-making.

SK: I can paint something tighter, but that doesn’t excite me. I like it when I just kind of like mush it together, and it’s better.

RM: You can say a lot more with a few brush strokes. 

SK: Yes, that seems harder to do.

RM: OK, so here you’ve got these images taped up. [Motions to wall in Steve Keene’s studio.] Lots of sources. Are you including these backgrounds? You’re setting up this system that appears to be very tight, and then you’re going against your own rules, right? And you’re making all these changes as you go.

SK: I’ve got this new thing now where I pre-paint the backgrounds, because I’m in such a time crunch.

It’s been working out better for me. My favorite abstract picture is de Kooning’s Door to the River at the Whitney Museum. I wish I could paint like that all day. Or like Howard Hodgkin with big gushy strokes. I mean, I want to put information into it. But, yeah, this is a new thing that started a few weeks ago where I’m not that concerned about backgrounds. I pull it together somehow. I like to be surprised. All of a sudden there’s pink behind that head, and that turned out great.

RM: So then, that takes us to here. [Motions to painting in progress.] What’s your plan here? How are you going to do this?

SK: All I see is two strokes: one up above, and one here.

RM: And then it grows from there? 

SK: Yeah, but it’s all about one big stroke. And then we have a proper plan.

RM: I want to talk about your inclusion of text and type. It’s almost as if your paintings have a “comments” section.

SK: That’s important. I learned in the beginning that people were less scared of them, because it seems like a poster. And everybody likes posters. People know how to enter a poster, because it tells you what to think about it. And also when you have words, you see the words and image at the same time. So you’re not concerned if you like the image, you’re just trying to figure out what that image has to do with the words. So you’re doing two things at once.

RM: Right. What you’re talking about is making work with an audience in mind. Which ultimately is about making art as a means of communication. Your desire is to communicate and have the work received. 

SK: And be useful. Oh, this painting is telling me something, or this is making me think a certain way.

RM: Is the idea to include text to make the paintings more stimulating? I’ve been thinking about paintings as meaning machines that require interpretation in order to be complete. Meaning is not broadcast out from the work, it is projected onto the work by the viewer. You don’t make the meaning, but you make the ingredients for the meaning. Part of that stimulation that you are creating for the viewer comes from the disconnect between the image and the text. These seem very cryptic. They’re like puzzles. 

SK: Yes, people are like what does that girl have to do with that tree. You know, it’s just a silly game. It just cracks people up. If people want to laugh, they laugh real hard sometimes.

RM: But it’s a game between you and the viewer. And that game is played in that gap between your intention and the viewer’s interpretation. So, your paintings are not blunt by any means, and they don’t do what posters do, which is to send a very clear message. This is really about the difference between art and design—my favorite topic! You’re using some of the strategies of design—combining images and text—to create your work, which allows for participation. Is that accurate? 

SK: I see it as a way to add a little bit more confusion. 

RM: Deliberate confusion?

SK: Yeah, you know; we live in New York, so we see a lot of art. And a lot of that art has words on it. But if you’re in Virginia, and you see a painting at a yard sale, you don’t see words on it. So I think it’s shocking when it’s out in the world. 

RM: Right. Out in the real world. 

SK: Yeah, it’s not like this art thing. It’s still unusual to see words in pictures.

RM: Your texts don’t seem to be pre-planned. Do you have a bank of phrases to pull from, or do you have many notes for texts somewhere?

SK: No, no. I mean, I do have notebooks that I write phrases down in. But… I don’t want to fall into the trap of writing the same things over and over again. The paintings can be the same thing. And, so, that’s the hardest part. It’s like, “What am I going to write on this one?” So, I’ll go over to the computer and just search phrases.

RM: In the moment?

SK: Yeah, oh yeah. Right at the end. And I’ll write it on before I sign them.

RM: But the texts are integral to the pictures. They’re woven into the compositions. They are compositional elements. They’re not captions by any means. Even the way you weave “SK” into the paintings.

SK: Yeah, I have to decide… I always like pictures with the artist’s initials on them. Like Diebenkorn. He always wrote “RD” on his. Or, Toulouse-Lautrec’s monogram. I loved that!

RM: Setting aside the fact that your true subject matter is pictures, regardless of their content, you still need to make decisions about which pictures to paint. How do you decide on the subject matter of the image sources?

SK: I have to give a range. I have to give the people what they want. And what they might not have thought they want. I have a responsibility to give a range, because they’re buying the things sight unseen. But most people want a rock-related thing. To me it becomes kind of a relic. You know, people might want a Jesus picture or a picture of Mary the same way they might want a little picture of The Cars. I just think it’s funny, how all these things can just be reduced to an icon.

RM: That definitely resonates with me—the reduction of a picture to its essential forms, which is what you’re doing. 

SK: Yeah, your images evolve from where they start.

RM: Warhol famously said that he wanted to be a machine. But you are a machine. 

SK: I feel like I’m a craftsperson. I feel like I’m a person making bagels or a pizza, you know. Or coffee mugs. I feel like I am making a craft for a different need. You might need a coffee mug, and you might need a little painting. The repetitiveness allows me to work in that way, but they each come out differently. Sometimes they’re fantastic, but you can’t make bagels fantastic one day and bad the next day. They all have to be good. But in the way that I work, sometimes I’m surprised. I just have to be surprised.

RM: Well, you have to keep yourself stimulated. But to what degree have you refined your process over the years with an eye toward making a better product or making them more efficiently? For example, the backgrounds are something new that allow you to be surprised. You’re designing chance moments in the paintings. 

SK: If I worry too much about what’s going on in the picture besides that, it looses the punch. I don’t paint in a trance anymore. I’m aware of what I do.

RM: That’s a big difference!

SK: So, I have to come up with other games. And some of these games are about surprising myself about the background. You know, I’ve been doing this for years, and I feel like I have a responsibility to the people that want my stuff—to get them something that they’re expecting, but I have to be able to push around in that to surprise myself as well. I feel obligated to do certain things. 

RM: But where does that obligation come from?

SK: From the fact that people are ordering my work. And, they think they’re going to get a rock thing, or—keep it to my style. It just seems that whenever I try to be interesting, it just always kills me. I’m an artist, so I’m insecure about stuff. But, I’m also ambitious in little weird ways.  

RM: I know what you’re saying. What you do is unique unto you and what you do is special. People want that piece of you. Don’t take yourself out of the work? 

SK: I always run into trouble if I’m just not myself. I just look at an image, and get the right brush to start, and just start building. It’s not about the picture. It’s about, at the end of two days, all this stuff just bloomed around me, and I’m just kind of in it, and it just feels good.

RM: And all these paintings are residue of what the real artistic gesture is. These are action paintings. The art is the making of these paintings like an assembly line. I can tell that you already see this painting in your mind’s eye. And, these over here are already mapped out in your head.

SK: Yeah, but that’s the easy part. It just kind of happens. I mean, how the hell am I going to put Simon and Garfunkel in these paintings here? You have to kind of dumb it down.

RM: Simplify. 

SK: Yeah, but you want to put as much logic into it as possible. Or, don’t overthink it.

RM: Yes, but those two strategies are at odds with each other. You want to make it logical, which is all about thinking. But you want to simplify, which is all about getting at the essence of the image through a process that is uniquely yours. You’re creating your own new image, even though you’re basing it on an existing image. So, there is a lot of you in all these paintings. I mean, they’re all you, even though they are pictures of pictures.

SK: I realized pretty early on that what I was doing wasn’t about inventing images. I just feel like I’m a hand-painted Rauschenberg. I’m just sucking in stuff and spitting it out. WM

This essay and interview will be included in the forthcoming first Steve Keene monograph being published in 2022.

Ryan McGinness

Ryan McGinness is an American artist, living and working in New York, New York. He grew up in the surf and skate culture of Virginia Beach, Virginia, and then studied at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as an Andrew Carnegie Scholar. During college, he interned at the Andy Warhol Museum as a curatorial assistant. Known for his extensive vocabulary of original graphic drawings that use the visual language of public signage, corporate logos, and contemporary symbology, McGinness is credited with elevating the status of the symbol to fine art through the creation of his paintings, sculptures, installations, and books. Concerned with the perceived value of forms, he assumes the power of this visual language in order to share personal expressions. The New York Times noted, “In the past decade, McGinness has become an art star, thanks to his Warholian mix of pop iconography and silk-screening.” Vogue declared, “Ryan McGinness is a leading pioneer of the new semiotics.” His work is in the permanent public collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Cincinnati Art Museum, MUSAC in Spain, and the Taguchi Art Collection in Japan. 


Instagram: @McGinnessWorks

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