A peripatetic, abstract painter who currently happens to be looking at people
Keane had a solo show at Equity Gallery in March of 2016, Displacement.
Following the arc of Meghan Keane’s career, I found her art to be rooted in architecture, fashion, and studio art training, at both Parsons and Brooklyn College. She also studied abroad, in Ecuador and Paris, which informs different aspects of her painting.
Paris has a palette, its own distinct color field, blues and greys. And South America? It’s overflowing with colorful landscapes. The cultural attitudes of a place are easily picked up by color. My interest in color has always been there, but Ecuador amplified it.
In Ecuador, Keane was able to develop her use of bright, flat colors, an interest that carries through to today.
When working as a studio assistant, I was taught by Debra [Goertz] to put down the opposite color of the prominent color of the entire painting to create optical energy, or tension, between colors. When I was starting painting post-Ecuador, I did a whole body of paintings that had a cerulean blue underpainting. I painted all of my architecture friends from my school in Ecuador. These paintings are young, in oil, from when I was obsessed with real precision [in representation]. Then, I did a body of work that was all red underpaintings. That’s where you can see that changing the underpainting changes everything-- the blue paintings were all living in a frigid, Alaskan state. But the red paintings? You just sweat looking at the painting. Part of [doing underpainting] is personal preference. But also in a theoretical sense, when you paint on a white canvas, you’re creating something that is in conversation with drawing. When you put down a color first, you’re immediately creating a conversation with painting.
Keane’s current interest in figures rose from painting internally displaced people in Colombia. She sees painting people and objects as honoring them. From her early works concerning hair and the linear, to portraits and bodies, she has made many prints and has relatively recently transitioned back into painting, 4 years ago. In 2012 she decided to get back into painting by taking a Painting 101 class with Archie Rand at Brooklyn College.
I took his class partly because I really liked how the class forced us to complete three paintings each week. I was the grandmother in the class [for undergraduate beginners]! Everyone else was so young, basically kids who’ve never painted before. Archie required us to put a color down as a base for our paintings. So I decided to put down red, because I always really liked it.
Her usage of red as an underpainting color stayed true even after the class ended, continuing on into the portraits she painted.
I got good at painting things quickly and prolifically for class. When it ended I asked myself, "How do I continue this?" The accountability of a class was a great driver to do work. However, your job as an adult and artist is to be accountable for creating your own structure. So I started off by calling all my friends and asking them to sit for me so that I had a fixed time and place to do work. Like my drawings on the MTA, I have a tendency to gravitate toward non-studio ‘studios’—my paintings of people have come almost entirely out of painting in other people’s homes. Usually I paint friends or open-minded strangers. It’s been beautiful because in a strange way I have a living Facebook stored away [gestures to closet filled with paintings].
Do you do any self-portraits?
Earlier on, as a younger artist and person, I was much more interested in self-portraits because I spent more time observing myself. You are your most readily available figure and model. Recently, I haven’t been doing as much but every once in awhile they will slip out in sketches.
My most recent self-portraits are from Archie’s class. I hadn’t painted in six years and [his class] was the first attempt after that hiatus. To think that, after six years of not painting, to then have to sit down and paint a portrait—let alone a self-portrait? It was scary.
Color clearly plays a big role in your work. After looking at your work from Colombia (Equity Gallery's show: Displacement), I was wondering why you largely attributed one color scheme per painting?
I was given paint from a friend and challenged myself to use only one color to define each portrait. It was wonderful. It was this really fun challenge of, "Ok, cool, who’s next, what colors am I feeling like using for this person today?" I did the entire body of work operating out of a general spirit of intuition and trust for the process.
How do you think the painting experience in Colombia will affect your future work?
I think the biggest takeaway from that experience was personal. Initially, the interest in the paintings wasn’t explicitly political. Rather, it was, "I really love painting and these people. I want to paint them." As it evolved, I realized how I was given an amazing opportunity to do representational justice, to tell stories in a certain way through these images of people who wouldn’t necessarily have access to a museum, let alone be a subject of a painting. I see now that these paintings bridge a significant gap, artistically and politically. The insight that these people gave in interviews after the fact—people who we [in highly developed countries] often very unfortunately think of as ignorant, poor people—floored me. They articulated a profound sensitivity to the human condition. I’m so humbled to be a part of it; it has completely changed my life.
The foundation my subjects lived in was in essence a homeless shelter, very much like ‘Mary and Joseph in the Inn’ situation. The foundation has displaced people knocking on their door daily. It’s hard to reckon with. You don’t know what to do to help. For me, the antidote to being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the situation was to do whatever I could within my capacities. I’m a painter; I can’t solve all of their problems, but I can paint them. Just that act completely changed the lives of twenty people, mine included. I really do believe that whatever you can do to positively affect even one person is absolutely worth it. And I think one of the most beautiful ways for that help to show up is through the gifts that you are given.
How did your Colombia paintings make it to the walls of Princeton?
That was through my collaborator Sebastian [Ramírez Hernández], who is getting his PhD there. He forwarded me an email about a call for graduate student artwork for the newest building on campus. Life is crazy this way. In my experience, it’s about doing the things you love. And not for the market or for money because that all will follow if you’re doing the thing you love.
Keane is interested in the idea of double imagery, which comes across in her studio filled with unexhibited prints and drawings. During our conversation, she cited being increasingly intrigued by the “specific way that people live in their own bodies.” How did that interest blossom after Colombia?
After Colombia, I started focusing on couples, because I saw how moved people were by sitting for a painting. I wanted to share that with more people. [Pas de Deux Project] became a very beautiful and moving project because I would sort of crash into these couples’ lives, show up in their intimate universe and habitat, and have to be completely present in the moment. Most people have purchased their paintings. It has been so nice to have people appreciate the work and to have [my paintings] on the walls of people who love them. It’s not something so universal: many artists can spend years of their life painting and not having people value their work.
You know how most musicians are just happy to have someone to jam with? I’m happy to have someone to look at. It’s interesting how artists and musicians are not like writers: writing can be very painful. … Maybe it means I am too comfortable, but for me, painting makes me so joyful. I’ve done it for so long that I’m just having fun with it, while still challenging myself to find what the weirdest thing I could do to push the boundaries of that particular painting. Like the curlers painting. And I recently got sick of painting faces! I'm now just really interested in the colors, the shades, the values, the formal stuff that is going on in my sitters’ surroundings and the clothing on their bodies. Abstraction, really. I’m lucky to have nice friends who let me paint them, even if it doesn’t include their faces.
On drawing, painting, and living with art:
Ever since I graduated from Brooklyn College in ‘07 I’ve drawn on my subway rides. So, even when I’m not painting, I’m always processing formal problems: look at this mark, let’s figure out how to incorporate it. I don’t see them as sketches; I see them as discrete drawings. A lot of my drawings are informed by music.
I’ve been thinking about doing an adopt-a-painting program... maybe rent the work for a semester at a time… I think it’s much better that the people who love the work get to live with it. You have to really live with a painting to understand how amazing it is to live with art. To have original art in your life is game changing, and spiritually important.
Interviewed by Sarah Cho