Zachary Keeting: Reconciling Layered Energies

Zachary Keeting coffee and cigarettes 2016 acrylic on canvas (triptych) 48” x 124” photo courtesy the artist

In Zachary Keeting’s restless and complex paintings swirls of vivid purples, yellows, and reds float by or contained within geometric shapes of subdued browns and pinkish off-whites. Together they orchestrate distinct rhythms and create a sense of luminosity. Keeting’s alluring colors often generate dynamic pictorial spaces filled with an imaginative array of fragmented forms which remind me of mirror shards prisms against a shifting light, particles in a quantum physics lab, or visual transcriptions of sounds. Although each of these parts, whether biomorphic or geometric, appears to assume a distinct characteristic, the overall sense we get is—what we see now is on the verge of changing within the next second.

In your interview with Brett Wallace (Conversation Project NYC, 2016) you say that your starting point was Modernism. You found Modernism risky and courageous – “I attempted to become a Modernist in my tastefully carpeted suburban room” – how did that fascination evolve till now?

Well, there’s less carpeting in my life. I’m not sure if that makes me more modern, or less.

I had very little confidence when I was young. Not having many friends, and generally not knowing what to do with myself, I’d frequently hide at the public library. I stumbled upon the art section one afternoon. For a kid longing to find focus and self-worth, what a stroke of luck: Modern painting!

I had so much restless energy as a 17-year-old, and so much frustration. My means of release (skiing, karate, riding around on a dirt bike) didn’t seem sufficient. I remember being afraid to stand out amongst my peers; of wanting to keep my head down and avoid ridicule. I certainly didn’t have the nerve to write, or paint, or play music … but I do now. The internal obstacles that needed overcoming were significant, and I’ve chipped away at them over the years.

The logistics of how to sustain an artistic life (paying the rent, juggling part-time jobs, finding a supportive community and an understanding, loving spouse) were carried out – especially early on – without any clear, long-term strategies. I did recognize, right out of the gates, that full-time employment would kill me. I did everything I could to scoot by, and flourish, on as little money as possible for 30 years.

Your question is: how has this fascination evolved? Sincere, gutsy painting still energizes me. Poems and songs and film too. The personal fortitude that must have been required for Braque, for Miro, for Mondrian to strike out on their own, to stand at odds with the conventions of their day, through war and poverty, still sets my heart aflutter.

You are a painter and a composer of electronic music. How do you see the relationship between the two in terms of thought, vocabulary, and work process?

I wouldn’t refer to the music as electronic, although I do use an electric bass and a Moog synthesizer that I plug in. I describe it more frequently as Punk, or perhaps linked up, in some ways, to No Wave. It’s handmade, but it’s recorded and edited on a computer, so there is a lot of screen time involved.

Terminology aside, I really appreciate you connecting the sounds with the pictures. I think of each endeavor as almost identical: layered energies. My friend Doireann Herold, who sings on the newest Ruined Empress LP (out later this summer) has described my approach to music as being very much like collage: improvising constantly, moving parts left and right, adding strange snippets in unexpected places, and chipping away methodically. At the end of the day, if all goes well, I arrive at a curiously shaped composition that’ll keep you guessing. I strive to make the crescendos and textures within each song surprising.

This non-linear approach creates terrain – comparable to the interwoven foregrounds/backgrounds in the paintings – that’s constantly on the move, blurring, slipping under itself, then rising high. Edges are critical as tones (and sound-colors) jockey for prominence. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I don’t imagine the paintings are, either.

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Zachary Keeting now comes a colorless age 2021 acrylic on canvas 50” x 36” photo courtesy the artist

In his review of your recent exhibition, Haunt the Margins, at Underdonk, Jason Andrew says in Two Coats of Paint that you describe your work as “gushes of feeling.” Tell me about your process. Let’s take for example your painting sharp love slow faint. I experience the space here as both inviting and unsettling, fragmented and total, open and enclosed. Your take?

It was very kind of Jason to stop by that day, hang out, and write his beautiful little piece. It’s true, I may have used the phrase “gushes of feeling” in passing … although it’s a bit much, don’t you think, written out? I tend to do that: get carried away with colorful descriptions, wrapped up in the lilt of the line. When I was young, we had an enormous dictionary I’d pour over for long, odd words. They’d just crack me up! Cat Balco, a wonderful painter, and dear friend, has described my titles as florid. Some would undoubtably say I’m inclined to these same excesses with the brush.

Since 2016, I’ve been starting the paintings on absorbent grounds. Thin washes of acrylic don’t initially seal off the canvas, and the ground accepts successive layers of color similarly to paper. When the acrylic does builds up, those sections change in character. I’ve been dancing between thick, thin, diaphanous, and craggy. I often describe the pieces in terms of elemental states: gaseous, liquid, solid, and radioactive (a strangeness in some of the colors resulting from the interactions of unseeable forces).

The newest paintings start both absorbent and purely geometric. The initial tonalities are improvisational and impulsive. The remaining weeks of work are spent trying to reconcile additions on top with what spontaneously happened preparing the ground. These additions are also improvisational, but more considered. I try to integrate the shapes (torqued, perspectival, gradient-rich geometries) and the energies (pours, scrapes, gestures) in a naturalistic, complex manner. And I try to mingle them completely: positioning the geometries in a gestural manner and thinking of each gesture structurally.

Perhaps because of this combination – brainy shape positioning, and free-improv physical release – I often think of what it means to be cool (unflappable, laid-back, restrained?) and what it means to be expressive (fiery, emotive, raw?). Cool as in Miles Davis. But wasn’t he also something of an Expressionist? And wasn’t Expressionist Betty Davis also cool as hell … just differently calibrated?

Anyway, I’d love for sharp love slow faint to possess cool attributes, but not be aloof. In general, I try and make my paintings inviting and unguarded, even if they’re sharp, or aggressively colored, or seem to be prioritizing cerebral structures. The paintings are built slowly, in the hopes that that’ll shake you up and take your breath away immediately, through emotional focus and surprising form, like a Lester Young solo.

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Zachary Keeting sharp love slow faint 2022 acrylic on canvas 68” x 80” photo courtesy the artist

Let’s look closer at games for two. It’s related in my mind to sharp love slow faint, like a yin and yang, opposing yet complementing. What is the relationship between these two paintings in your mind and do you tend to paint in series?

I worked on them simultaneously. They’re very closely related, especially the razor-sharp triangular forms in each, rising out of weird, smoky atmospheres. I’ve been working on large paintings these past few months, in anticipation of a show at Private Public in Hudson (opening July 23rd). Each sequential piece has become increasingly geometric. It’s a thread I’m chasing, one that’s simultaneously fun and unnerving.

I was a hard-edge painter early on (during and after grad school circa 1996-2005). I felt the need for a reductive visual vocabulary, at least initially. I wanted to focus on a few key variables: color, form, and symbolism. The stripping away of touch, of gesture, and all that is soft and billowy in the world, was a necessary step for me in the process of learning: I take in new variables, technologies, and information slowly. I’m loyal to what works, and the things I love. These tight paintings from my 20s were truthful … but I didn’t much like myself. So, I banished sharp edges – foreswore tape – attempting to become a different person: less rigid, more accepting, more generous, less judgmental.

Zachary Keeting games for two 2022 acrylic on canvas 64” x 80” photo courtesy the artist

A path under surges strikes me as very different from the previous paintings. It is also fragmented but its fluidity streams more freely, breaking the inner boundaries. For me the previous paintings open portals into different compartments of an inner space and this one has an overall flow, an overall feeling across the surface. Does that make sense to you? And what can you tell me about this painting?

A path under surges is a bit older, closer to the moment I started bringing hard edges back into the mix. On September 11th, 2021, I took out the painting I’d been working on twenty years before (soon after moving to New Haven) just to look at it and think about that day. I propped it up over one of my recent, fully organic pieces and took a pic. I sent it to my sister Hannah, who exclaimed “I love seeing the old you over the new you, but I’d love to see the old you in the new you!” My friend Bryan De Roo, a terrific painter out in LA, has also been encouraging me to do this for years. So, I decided to give it a shot.

In a path under surges, the geometries are slowing starting to rise, push up and against the molten, volcanic forms. I’d been feeling it was necessary to bring something human, or fragile, into my maelstroms: something vulnerable, some element that could be harmed, that could break. My sister’s encouragement flipped the switch.

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Studio view September 2021 photo courtesy the artist
Zachary Keeting a path under surges 2021 acrylic on canvas 48” x 36” photo courtesy the artist

Your titles are fresh and poetic – the tsar’s yoke, heated and hammered, waltz of charms, swallowing fire on the corner for cash, games for two – all in lower case. What would you like to share about your titles and how they relate to the paintings?

In one of our last conversations, my mom asked me if my paintings were about anything at all. Up until that point, I’d always just written my name and date on the back of each piece, leaving possible interpretations completely open. She always supported my decision to paint and respected the unending commitment it required to keep going when no-one was showing or buying anything, year-in year-out … but she was on the outside, not knowing what to make of them.

She once asked me if I’d make her a painting for Christmas. Her request: a cabin in the woods with deer. I made the piece, which she lovingly hung in her room, but I couldn’t bring myself to render hard-edge deer!

The first painting I titled was called coffee and cigarettes. Against all odds, I sold that one and was able to pay for her burial. For my mom, and for all the people out there like my mom, who’d appreciate an inroad, a small gesture of invitation, I now title my pieces.

As far as where the titles come from, some, like coffee and cigarettes or paint the jaguar brown, come from my daily life. These titles lead the visuals: I chase them pictorially. I enjoy this order of operations because it seems counterintuitive for abstract art (am I flirting with illustration?) and the paintings end up exceptionally specific.

Most of the other titles are from books I love, or (less-frequently) songs I love, and are applied after-the-fact, when the painting is finished. I like the idea of someone typing one of these titles into Google and being sent to the exact Andrei Bely passage that blew my mind. Reading has been important for me over the years, it’s enrichened my inner life. Folding this undercurrent, this parallel journey of thought, into the visuals of the studio feels right.

I have journals jam packed with things I come across in my readings. I never underline my books – the horror! – but I’ve always loved copying down passages. It seems a great way to linger, a way to internalize, just a little bit more, that thing that just re-aligned my worldview. And how great is it seeing fierce, truthful words flow through one’s hand? I know I’ll never write a book, but this impulse to see my script siphon the thoughts of others, has been a powerful one. You ask about the lowercase: that’s the way they are because that’s the way I write.

The whole titling process is enjoyably nerve-wracking. I want the invitation to be the right one, and I frequently spend hours looking over my list of possible contenders. I gravitate towards long, dark titles at night. Short, offbeat, and surreal ones in the morning. And yes, I do worry I’ll select a title too florid, too overwrought for a picture.

I find it interesting that you don’t put dates or dimensions in your website. Is it for design reasons/ practical reasons or is there another reason behind that choice?

The titles are arranged chronologically down the left-hand side of my website. It isn’t a poem, but it does suggest one. Like Sappho, it’s broken shards of poetry. I mention the scale of things when I upload stuff on Instagram. I’m not trying to be cryptic.

And you are the co-founder of Gorky’s Granddaughter, a renowned interview project you have started with Christopher Joy in 2010. What would you like to share about this fantastic endeavor, and how do you think this expansive interaction with other artists over the years has impacted your own work?

Thanks for tuning in, Gorky’s Granddaughter has been a labor of love and an incredible learning experience. My paintings wouldn’t be the same without it.

We have absolutely no budget, but lots of energy, it seems. We’re almost up to 600 movies at this point! The whole thing is driven by curiosity, a desire to connect, and an openness for experience. I got the memo: it’s incredibly healthy getting out of your own head from time to time, preferably talking with others about what matters most to them.

And seeing artists we admire (some of them old friends, some of them strangers) wrestle/channel/summon spirit from innate materials is such a thrill. In the glories of their private studios no less.

Many people ask us why this mountainous archive isn’t in cold storage in the basement of some museum. Others likely think of it as an unending series of longwinded conversations, on arcane subjects, on some obscure website, with no commercial viability, long past its prime. These are both true assessments, but it’s also an experiment in radical generosity. And a loving, decade-plus document of my friendship with Chris.

The whole project began while my band was unraveling, and I was about to set music aside (perhaps indefinitely). The process of filming and editing conversations filled that void for ten years. I’ve always tried, even though our approach has been scrappy and lo-fi, to make the movies as musical as possible.

It wasn’t until Covid shut down the world, and Chris and I needed to take a break, that I resumed playing music again (solo in my study). Chris and I started up again last summer when it felt somewhat safe to do so. And then again, this past October when rates were low. Omicron washed over us all, and we took another hiatus. Just now in June, we visited three artists in New York, everyone conscientiously getting tested beforehand. I’ll be working on these edits over the next few weeks. Hopefully, it’ll be safe to do more as the summer/fall advances. And hopefully, I can keep making music too … it’s hard to do it all.

What are you working on / exhibiting now?

Like I mentioned above, large paintings that are becoming overtly sharp. It’s curious how the gestures now have a place to go, instead of being unbridled. The most recent piece, called forward into a closing trap is somewhat suggestive of a hall of mirrors. It’s a bit scary … or it’s the product of a scared mind. At least that’s how it felt as I was working on it.

I started this one attempting to emulate a Jacob Lawrence palette. I didn’t have his catalogue open or look at any of his pieces online as I was mixing colors. I just had him, and his incredible brown/ochre/black/red/ultramarine worlds, in mind. I tried to remain true to this palette as the piece advanced.

I feel an increasing sense of dread living in America, this shattered/charred terrain, cleaving in half and dangerously armed. I’m sure it was horrible in the early 40s too when Lawrence was working on his magisterial, heartbreaking Migration Series.

As an aside, perhaps related in terms of violence: could that scene at the end of Enter the Dragon have been any better?

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Zachary Keeting forward into a closing trap 2022 acrylic on canvas 64” x 54” photo courtesy the artist
Robert Clouse Enter the Dragon 1973

Born in Germany (1973), Zachary Keeting lives and works in Connecticut. He received his BFA from Alfred University in 1995, and his MFA from Boston University in 1998. He has shown his paintings nationally and internationally, and has participated in numerous residency programs including Yaddo, The Millay Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and The Santa Fe Art Institute. He co-founded Gorky’s Granddaughter (an interview project) in 2010 with Christopher Joy. He frequently records music; and for the past 15 years, has taught painting at The Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by