Born in 1923, Jeff Keen had been making films and expanded cinema since 1960. His later work (in video as well as 8mm and 16mm) was just as fresh and vigorous as the legendary rapid-fire collage of such early films as Marvo Movie (1967) or Cine Blatz (1968). Since the mid-1960s he also combined live-action, tape, film and slides in mixed-media performance, in the person of his manic alter-ego, Dr Gaz. In the best sense, time did not temper him. A true auto-didact, his single frame art and prodigious output of drawings and sketchbooks are packed with a condensed, distilled and displaced iconography which originated in his cinematic ‘primal scene’. In Keen’s case, this goes back to his days as a bewildered teenager, a raw recruit for World War II, which he sardonically dubbed “the greatest movie ever made.” The passions and frustrations of youth burst through; young audiences were among his best viewers, through the 1960s underground to punk and post-techno.
Many of Keen’s films explored ‘cut-ups’ of mass culture imagery, using found footage and animation as well as icons culled from magazines. Others are pastiche dramas, as in White Dust (1972), where he envoked the arcane humour lurking in his source material – the ‘cheap cinema’ of fringe Hollywood genres and their imitators (like such favourites as Godzilla Meets The Hulk). At the same time, mass images – often the near-anonymous product of the commercial margins – were given his personal signature. In the early days, he used family and friends to make up an ad hoc cast for his films – the surreal characters Mottler, Silverhead, Vulvana, Baby Jelly.
Alongside his 16mm fantastic and mock-action dramas (all climax and no story) he also made 8mm diary films in which the magic is drawn from the accidents of daily life. These themes fuse in the sequences of cornucopia – peace and plenty – which punctuate the more frenetic aspects of his work, to celebrate childhood play and free fantasy.
Keen was also associated with mind-numbing montage, a melt-down of cartoon capers, new photos, modern art movements, ads and logos, puns and jokes, old movies and visual anarchy. Rapid and multi-layered, it purposefully “cuts the power lines”, social and aesthetic. By contrast, Mad Love (1978) offered a more measured series of narrative and comic tableaux which still draws on Surrealism and its popular roots in ‘low art’. Surrealism, filtered through the air of Brighton (where he lived and worked for many years), was perhaps his strongest single influence.
Keen’s new films and videos keep pace with the times, signalled in the ambition, theme and title of his Artwar – The Last Frontier (1993) – i.e. the self-portrait of the artist as a rebellious sorcerer with rapid-eye vision. Many of the titles of his latest films are defiant dada shouts, more sounds than sense (although he remains a classicist in his control of the medium); Gazwrx (1986), Omozap (1991), B-B-B-BOM (1990), Platzmatic Blatz (1991). As Jeff Keen said years ago, "When words fail – use your teeth".
Words by Al Rees
Extract from The Directory of British Film and Video Artists courtesy of the Arts Council England.