BY Naomi Fry in Features | 01 MAY 11
Featured in
Issue 139

Matt Keegan

Historical, social and political questions: ‘how did we get here?’

BY Naomi Fry in Features | 01 MAY 11

In the summer of 2007, the New York-based artist Matt Keegan embarked on a cross-country road trip. Along with two artist friends, Kenny Anderson and Erin Fetherman, Keegan was following in the footsteps of ‘Hands Across America’, a 1986 fundraiser in which millions formed a human chain – stretching from New York to California – as part of an effort to thwart homelessness. After he and his friends had made plaster casts of the hands of several mayors (and also some regular citizens) whose towns were located along the way, Keegan published a book, AMERICAMERICA (2008), which comprised a range of visual and written materials. Ephemera connected to the ‘Hand Across America’ fundraiser (as well as its retracing) were included, along with reproductions of art works made that year, newspaper clippings about the socio-political climate of the mid-1980s (the aids crisis, economic inequity), interviews with artists and activists, advertisements and tabloid covers. As Keegan explained in his introduction, the gathering of these elements sought to examine the following question: ‘how did we get here?’

Though often dealing with historical, social and political questions, Keegan is rarely interested in creating a direct, easily graspable narrative with which to answer them. In this sense, AMERICAMERICA is a good starting point to discuss the artist’s highly varied social-cum-materialist-cum-conceptual work. As in the road trip and the book, Keegan’s approach is distinguished by a reliance on the collaborative and sociable aspects of art-making; a sampler-like sensibility towards cultural artefacts and an understanding of textuality, broadly, and print culture, specifically. It also demonstrates an attitude towards the socio-political sphere that is energetic and quirky, committed and coded.

Untitled (Group 6), 2011. Four c-prints. All images are courtesy of the artist.
With its elegantly restrained, often ‘design-y’ appearance, Keegan’s work could be described as using a random didacticism (or, perhaps, didactic randomness). He asks his viewer to decipher the deceptively autonomous signs he provides and make something of them. For his 2009 solo show at Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco, for instance, Keegan exhibited a range of photographs and objects which, apart from their shared connection to some form of timekeeping, appeared cryptic, almost pointedly so. A photograph of the artist, his face obscured by the front page of The New York Times, offered no initial clues (March 17, 2009); another, of a re-photographed calendar produced by Smith News Corp – the first magazine distributorship in northern California – bearing a pretty, generic image of a San Francisco street is equally enigmatic (May, 2009, both 2009). But when considering these pieces alongside several others in the space (a piece of sheetrock leaning against the wall, etched with the days of the week; calendars from the 1950s to 1990s on loan from the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society archive; a photograph of a handsome young man in profile, with the word ‘Tuesdays’ logoed on his sunglasses), they slowly became a form of language, a way to communicate the experience of a particular time spent at a particular place – in this case, the artist’s own stay in the Bay Area – and, following this, actively engage with that area’s historical, political and social terrain.

‘Milton Glaser’, the title of Keegan’s current solo show, at D’Amelio Terras gallery, New York, is accompanied by an altered rendering of the legendary graphic designer’s I ♥ NY logo (in which the heart is replaced by an apple – a collaboration with David Reinfurt). This appropriation and tweaking could perhaps be understood as a skeptical critique of popular design, but Keegan’s long, admiring interview with the modest Glaser, which serves as the show’s press release, signals otherwise. What splits the difference here is Keegan’s appreciation of Glaser’s graphic language as a way of both binding a community as well as interpreting it. In the show, the artist similarly shares his own visual enthusiasms, which are all connected in some way to New York, and are expressed in various way – from a video of the artist’s father speaking of his days as a caddy on urban developer Robert Moses’ private golf course (Biography/Biographer), to a visuals-only publication (A History of New York, both 2011) which loosely follows the nearly 400-year history of the city as it is laid out in filmmaker Ric Burns’ US public television series, New York: A Documentary Film (1999).

Employing a range of media, the exhibition moves fluidly between the historical and the personal. The walls of the gallery’s front room are lined with 15 consecutive sheets of metal (painted in what turn out to be the eight official colours used in New York City’s bridges), on which Keegan has placed a series of 60 photographs, four to a sheet, taken on his walks around the city’s boroughs: Untitled (Group 1) and Untitled (Group 15) (both 2011). The work prizes visual flow over narrative: two pictures of manhole covers are followed by an image of two men, viewed from the back as they walk down the street wearing nearly identical black jackets, caps and jeans; a photograph of three wild-haired poodles held aloft is followed by a picture of a beard trimmer still in its grotty box, and so on. In these photos we have, on the one hand, a classic example of a Sausserean sequence in which meaning is determined by difference; what we also encounter here, though, is a reminder that once that difference is brought to light, we should begin to pay attention to how these particular parts form a larger collective meaning. As Glaser suggests in the show’s press release, in response to Keegan’s question about the work of his teacher Giorgio Morandi: ‘when you regard it with some attention, you discover that the range is fantastic. The modesty of the paintings and their lack of drama keep you from noticing at first. Later you feel changed by the experience, and you no longer look at the world the same way.’

Naomi Fry is a writer based in New York, USA.