Like many artists, Jeff Keen didn’t want lengthy explanations and theories made about his work. But many of us, I suspect, are at a loss at what to do when confronted with modern art. It feels impenetrable somehow, as though there is a language and a world in front of us that we have been locked out of.
This was the very opposite of what Keen wanted. He was a great lover of pop culture and used it frequently as inspiration but also literally incorporating it into his work. Cut out images from comic books feature in his collage pieces, and his films often used B-movies and stock footage, as well as scenes shot using his friends and family in Brighton.
Pop culture is powerful because it connects us and the way Keen uses it to express his ideas highlights the intimate connection he feels to it. This personal touch becomes more evident watching Keen’s films. Locals will instantly recognise in the rapid fire of images that blaze across the screen landmarks such as the beach and pier, Whitehawk Tip and St Ann’s Well Gardens. This familiarity and even intimacy is reinforced by Keen’s use of himself and his family and friends as performers.
The point of Keen’s art wasn’t just the finished work, but the process of creating it. One of the most exciting things about Brighton Museum’s exhibition is seeing all the different aspects of his work together, something that hasn’t been done much before. It’s possible to watch Marvo Movie (1967) and then see the props he used in the film itself.
In all honesty, I can’t say I fully “get” Keen’s works. But the home-made, DIY aesthetic appealed to me the longer I lingered. It vividly reminded me of being a teenager, when my friends and I used to draw, write and film silly little stories. They were pretty cringe worthy, but I still love those attempts to be creative. It wasn’t the end product that mattered but the process.
“If words fail, use your teeth,” said Keen in the early 1960s. “If teeth fail, draw in the sand”. The energy and the passion with which Keen created his art is powerful and inspiring.
If you’re feeling creatively blocked or listless, I urge you to see Shoot the Wrx at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. I can’t guarantee that you’ll like Keen’s work, but even if you don’t, maybe you’ll be inspired to grab a camera and some friends and head to St Ann’s Well Gardens to do better. Who knows – you could be the next Jeff Keen.
Shoot the Wrx, Artist and Film-maker Jeff Keen, is open until 21 April at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Entrance is free.