Steve Keene and the Art of Indie Rock
A Kickstarter campaign launched by a longtime colleague will help bring this acclaimed painter the recognition he deserves in the art world and beyond
The artwork of Steve Keene, which is being compiled for an upcoming book by longtime collaborator Dan Efram, has been omnipresent in American indie rock for over 25 years.
When I began my editorial internship at SPIN in the Fall of 1997, I’d see Steve’s paintings in one of the editors’ offices, I think maybe Charles Aaron’s who had a lot of stuff up on his walls. I remember when I first started at CMJ a month after graduating from SUNY New Paltz in 1998, and seeing his paintings in all the editors’ offices, gifts that were given at the time by New York City music publicity firm Girlie Action. When I went to interview artists like Sebadoh and Tha Alkaholiks at the original Girlie offices, Steve was all over their walls. Then I began seeing his art at different record shops I’d frequent. Rhino in New Paltz, NY, has one or two. Station One in Pompton Lakes, NJ has one as well. I’d see Steve’s paintings in bars, in friends’ apartments, in bookstores and elsewhere for the better part of this last quarter century.
The paintings themselves always drew my eye, because they were depictions of classic album covers I liked, be it Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, Reckoning by R.E.M. or Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade done in this crude, impressionistic fashion that was shockingly accurate despite the absence of deep detail. It ultimately took me a long minute to remember that I’m looking at the paintings of the same artist who did the cover for Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, not to mention albums by The Apples In Stereo, Jim O’Rourke, Merzbow, Silver Jews, Band of Horses and the Del-Lords to name a fraction of those who’ve commissioned him for their covers. So when I began to see the paintings of Mr. Keene pop up on my socials, I reached out to Dan Efram to get the scoop on his upcoming book, which is being funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign that’s surpassed its goal by nearly $4,000 at press time.
“It’s hard to believe that I’ve been working on projects with Steve Keene since 1994,” Efram wrote in a public statement. “This book project, in the works since SK’s show, co-curated with Shepard Fairey at his Subliminal Projects gallery in 2016, is something else that Steve has given me… a purpose, a project and something to look forward to after a year of complete uncertainty. Yet again, SK’s art makes me smile! The size of the book must be proportional to the amount of joy the world has received from Steve Keene’s work. It is being designed to be the size of a vinyl box set, ready for placement next to your favorite albums!”
Steve Keene has long been under-appreciated for his importance to the 90’s indie music scene. This new art collection book hopes to update the narrative and provide collectors with as complete a collection of his broad swath of works as possible.
“In late 2015, when SK was finishing up his hundreds of paintings that would be shipped to Subliminal Projects, the gallery emailed me,” Efram explains. “‘Make sure to take photos of each piece’ they requested, as they needed it for their catalog. It was at this point that I realized taking hundreds of photos was going to be a lot of work. But it also dawned on me that if I took high quality photos, perhaps down the line, they could be used for something. Hence, the SK Art Book Project.”
For over 30 years, Keene has made his fame as arguably the most productive handmade painter of all time. He’s created somewhere along the lines of 300,000 art pieces that he’s generated from his Greenpoint studio, where he paints 40-60 pieces, cutting up ⅜” plywood that he uses as “canvases,” before entering his chain link fence cage that doubles as an easel for his work that day. He will then paint color by color, layer by layer, in much the same way as he learned from screen printing, but painting all of the pieces by hand until they are completed, several hours later. Later that week they will be packaged up for sales. Collectors by the dozens routinely line up for his 6 random pieces for $70 (including shipping!). Back in the 90s, Keene would routinely sell his paintings at appropriate NYC shows, primarily offering the pieces for sale on the “honor system” with a handmade, wood tip jar for suggested payment.
For Efram, who worked with Keene on a collection of Woody Guthrie lyrics in 2006 along with other projects, The Steve Keene Art Book has always been the ace up his sleeve as the quintessential means with which to ensure his artist friend gets the widespread exposure he so richly deserves.
“Art books are special,” Efram states. “They are a specialty, like buying the vinyl of musicians you love, essential. In 2019, I produced my first photography art book. Putting together Curiosities was an eye opening experience, but one I enjoyed tremendously. The SK book was next on my radar, and then the pandemic hit and the project was delayed until now.”
If you want to learn more about The Steve Keene Art Book and its impending release, full details are available on their Kickstarter page or at obeygiant.com.
VIDEO: The Steve Keene Art Book trailer
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