MEGHAN KEANE: DISPLACEMENT, DESPLAZAMIENTO
136 Pages, Full color
Publisher: Equity Gallery and MKS Press
On the occasion of Displacement, a solo exhibition by Meghan Keane at Equity Gallery, the gallery and MKS Press are co-publishing a monograph, Meghan Keane: Displacement, Desplazamiento. With essay contributions by New York art critics Jill Conner (Artists Studios, Whitehot Magazine) and Jonathan Goodman (Art in America, Brooklyn Rail), anthropologist Sebastián Ramírez Hernández (Princeton University), Carolina Rubio MacWright (immigration lawyer, political artist, Bogotá native) and Laura Moretti (site photographer), the monograph situates Keane's paintings as powerfully humanizing gestures amidst the complex Colombian and Latin American socio-political landscape, in addition to positioning her firmly as a significant contributor to contemporary social practice discourse. Keane's paintings are indicative of a larger push by painters to re-value paint as an expressive and democratizing medium.
From the dust jacket:
"Meghan Keane has produced a relentless, inspired and noble series of paintings. Energetic and devoted, she's one hell of a painter."
—Archie Rand, American Artist
READ ONLINE REVIEW:
SLANT MAGAZINE - AN ARTIST WHO PAINTS PEOPLE, NOT PORTRAITS BY ANNA WILKING
DISPLACEMENT: MEGHAN KEANE
BY JONATHAN GOODMAN
New York-based painter Meghan Keane’s suite of twelve paintings, entitled Displacement, refers to the tragic situation of the displaced and homeless in Colombia, where internal violence remains high. The reasons people are displaced vary; they could be forced out of their homes for political reasons, or for something as arbitrary as the violent dislike of a drug lord for nothing more than personal grounds. Keane’s portraits of individuals, couples, and children are beautifully painted, hovering at times between realism and abstraction, but their true worth and estimate belong to the troubled circumstances that brought her subjects to a privately run home for displaced people near Bogotá.
Completed in 2013, Keane’s project is deeply moving, not least because her choice of theme is rare in contemporary America, where emphasis is on Pop pleasure both in life and art. The treatment in her work of an essentially social and political plight gives both the artist and her topic a gravitas that is rare to see in art now. There is of course a tradition in which politics are examined in America—one thinks of the black-and-white photographers of the Thirties and Forties and, more recently, the paintings of mercenaries by Leon Golub. Still, there is something lyrically melancholic in Keane’s work that makes it stand out as both art and implied polemic.
In the painting Los Chinos (Ingri, Manuel, Maria, Samuel Mateo), the five figures sit on steps outdoors, with a yellow light illuminating the stairs, but also casting part of the picture in deep shadow, including the children themselves. It is a solemn tableau, made melancholic to the point of sorrow because of the audience’s knowledge of the figures’ circumstances. At the same time, Los Chinos is a powerfully composed painting, done so that the eye travels up the composition—this despite the fact that the protagonists are sitting rather than standing.
As a piece of social realism, Los Chinos is surely important, but it is also a beautifully made work of art. This combination of accomplished esthetic verisimilitude, along with Keane’s major interest, the portraiture of the dispossessed, make Los Chinos a painting that stands out visually in this series. But even more important, it makes a powerful case for the dignity of people made vulnerable by powers beyond their control.
One may not know the particular political details of the painting Indio, Gabriel, Juan Fernando, the seventh in the series, but the visual circumstances are striking. The three men, painted a combination of dark greens and blues, stand before the viewer in a condition of late twilight, with the sky and ground having been painted a dark blue. A mountain, or high foliage, separates the foreground from the sky. It is hard to see the attitude of the three figures, but their placement in a dark, mysterious environment speaks to uncertainty, a moral hesitance that reveals little and suggests danger.
Keane’s technical skill is very high, but the focus remains on the anonymity of the unentitled, whose lives seem to be at the mercy of forces that have no interest in them as people. This is of course ethically reprehensible, and Keane is right to envision her figures suffering within a sympathy that is wide and deep. In contrast to other artists who consider this subject, I never sense a false step emotionally on the artist’s part. She is to be commended for her commitment and empathy. (2016)
AWAY FROM HOME
BY JILL CONNER
Meghan Keane is a traveling artist. Being a frontiersman is part of her practice. Wherever she goes, she paints portraits of people whom she encounters at each destination – sometimes friends, or friends of friends, but usually people she doesn’t know, and doesn’t always know if she will ever see again.
In January 2013, Keane traveled south to Soacha, Colombia and conducted an art workshop with local refugees who were either seeking shelter or receiving regular assistance from the Fundación Colombia Nuevos Horizontes. Despite the challenged conditions, Keane was drawn to the warmth of this displaced population and was compelled to write a pitch to go back and paint foundation residents. That fall, Keane created her series of 12 large-scale, unstretched acrylic paintings, giving representation to an array of individuals deeply affected by the violence of guerilla warfare.
It can be argued that portraits historically prompt a process of self-perception, self-reflection, and self-identification. The art viewing experience has always been intertwined with an observer’s internal psychological perceptions and projections. The human tendency is to look at images to confirm who we are. Having found its historical place through both private commissions and the narrow one-to-one relationship between artist and subject, painted portraiture typically creates a distance with everyday art observers. And, as a result, most viewers either receive portraits well, or they don’t. With regular portraiture there is, and has always been, an uphill battle to be relevant. There is a strong impulse to push away images of people who are unfamiliar, any image that doesn’t reflect a sense of self. In some cases, the rejection is simply discrimination and prejudice. In other cases, people simply cannot register a portrait. In a sense, portraits are historical outliers; they don’t fit in, unlike art containing more common signifiers like landscapes, symbols and metaphors, mythology, or cultural and religious icons (i.e., Jesus, Ma- donna, God, man with a beard, Santa, etc.).
Moreover, modern viewers have been aesthetically groomed by images seen in mass media. Most are more attuned to photographic likeness and, thus, less accustomed to finding appreciation in someone who is anonymous. This dynamic creates both a mainstream sensitivity to strangers (celebrities) and a continued suspicion of portraiture for presenting an unknown. However, in this exhibition, titled Displacement, Keane shows the viability of portraiture within our densely mediated world. She renders the likenesses and the lives of unknown people as recognizable, familiar, and validated, opening up space for them to be similarly recognizable, familiar, and validated throughout society.
The word “likeness” goes a long way within the scope of Displacement. In Keane’s œuvre, a portrait does not have to clearly represent its subject, nor with an array of painted colors. In these paintings, the faces and figures of the artist’s sitters appear along with their immediate surroundings, such as a chair, kitchen counter, or couch. Miniscule details are left out, which opens up space for the observer who tends towards discrimination against the foreign, or unfamiliar. With this general framework and easy point of entry, the artist allows observers to insert their own psychological projection. Keane has saturated each canvas with two of the three primary colors — blue, yellow, or red — so that the observer first sees one color before identifying another, which in the end demands the viewer fully apperceive the subject.
“Painting truthfully, in person, is my way of honoring the beauty of the people I encounter and the real, vital experience we have together, especially the particular magic that happens when painting an individual,” writes Keane. “For me, the act of painting validates one’s humanity. It validates any sitter: from any class, from any race. Art transcends the outward and validates that which we have in common.” By downplaying the value of a wide array of colors, Keane increases the universal appeal of her sitters, because they appear mysterious and less specific. Throughout each composition, there are enough details missing so that any observer can complete these paintings in his or her mind, and develop a personal identification with the subject, who is a stranger but also recognizable as a person in our shared contemporary moment.
Truthfulness is the core of the artist’s process and displacement from violence is a jarring reality. While first traversing from point-to-point in Japan 2010, Keane created her transparent method focused on demystifying the artistic process, aiming to bring alienated, disaffected audiences closer. She does the same here. Most artists present a can- vas and hang it on the wall. Keane comes back with more: a portrait plus photographs of the painting being made, of the sitter, and of herself with the sitter. These are transparent moves on the artist’s part. She intentionally unfolds the shared experiences that led to each portrait. With most work, the casual observer starts out not being in the know. It is no different here. However, Keane supplies information with thoughtfully curated photographs and slowly lets you in. She lets viewers understand and appreciate while looking at the completed pieces in person, tying the process together and allowing anyone to be in the know after the fact. Usually the definition of being insider, being in the know, takes place beforehand; here it is possible to experience afterwards, making sure no one is left out of anything. It is a totalizing gesture of inclusion.
Like a paintbrush, the artist also uses process photographs to piece together the larger picture that exists beyond the canvas. Keane can be seen standing with a woman in a small, dimly-lit kitchen or inside a front door that opens out onto a street curb. This documentation, which represents the artist, the painted canvas, and her subject, conveys not only the substance felt within the location but also the lived reality. Through the photo documentation of the Displacement series, Keane closes the gap of awkwardness brought about by anonymity, erasing the grounds for a stranger bias. It is then replaced with a sense of visual familiarity.
Keane serves up empathy as a learning process. Her work prompts reflection: why do we buy magazines of people who are complete strangers to us? It is because they are so familiar. They are closer to us than family because of the perceived truthfulness of television and film and journalistic photography. Keane is deftly countering television. And by countering mass media, she challenges viewers and simultaneously develops a palette in them, allowing them to cultivate an unanticipated viewing empathy.
The way Keane presents this archival back up, this text and book included, underscores that there are layers and layers at play in her portrait process—which does not happen with many portraits at all. It is an invisible effort on her part, getting the viewer to learn about portraiture, people they don’t know, and the world at large. Keane takes people beyond the work. I felt for a second that I was going to this community. The work, the images, took me there. I traveled imaginatively to this location. It is arresting because the work on first glance is unassuming; it looks simple and accessible, and meets the viewer at a very basic level of slightly abstracted realism. But it brings you in, then completely changes. It is not plain or simple; it is a series of layers and stories about the human condition.
Keane’s work is very activistic. It is not the Brillo box with the ends in itself. Displacement is a launching point, not an end point—which is exactly what art is supposed to do. Keane succeeds in revealing to people something about the world seen firsthand. Her activism lies in the resistance to being deadpan and asking how art can create a type of change in people and their lives.
Within this small suburb of Bogotá, Keane witnessed displacement and painted economic and social disparity located very close to the capital of Colombia. The artist’s extensive archive of this voyage makes her subjects tangible, real, and alive. Their situations, moreover, can be felt. (2016)
Essays ©2016 Jill Conner, Jonathan Goodman
Excerpted from monograph, MEGHAN KEANE: DISPLACEMENT, DESPLAZAMIENTO