JEFF KEOUGH Skullscapesby Phong Bui
Neiman Gallery, Dodge Hall, Columbia University | March 4 – 31, 2010
Known for over 25 years as a legendary director of exhibitions at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston, Jeffrey Keough’s innovative curatorial vision has connected local artists in the New England region with international artists such as Xu Bing, William Wegman, Kiki Smith, Tony Oursler, and many others, while tackling diverse historical, social, and political themes ranging from the Holocaust, to AIDS, to the bombing of Hiroshima. When a stroke in 2005 left him unable to walk or talk for a few years, he did not retreat, but took the event as an occasion to reconnect with his past work as an artist, and to focus on a compelling interest that emerged during his recovery—his search for a new identity.
Despite a strong, insular conversation among four terracotta busts on one side of the gallery, (each embracing different physical actions such as drilling, wrapping, and tying) and between four identical skulls on the other side, (each slightly altered, perhaps to represent different personalities as their titles suggest), the installation’s most pronounced element is its unity, which obliterates individual narratives, and the biographical references within them. The painted gray walls, thoroughly scratched and sanded, and the unpainted pedestals—in contrast to the ready-made assemblages infused with surrealist idioms—create a fluid and direct rapport between the two and three-dimensional works that draw the installation into a single, integrated whole.
The contrast between ready-made and handmade carries throughout the installation. The different heights of the pedestals yield to the artists’ sense of spatial irregularity. The shortest pedestal is for “Gus” (2004), composed of a plaster head tied down with rope on a steel table, which recalls Duchamp’s “With Hidden Noise” (1916/1964). The tallest are the three shattered glass boxes containing three skulls. One also senses Keough’s visceral desire to minimize the repetition of the thematic subject for the sake of pictorial coherence and rigor, which is the real aim of the exhibit.
One suspects that the selection of books placed beneath Keough’s busts—The Haunted Self: Surrealism, Psychoanalysis, Subjectivity by David Lomas, The Inferno of Dante, translated by Robert Pinsky, and Don Delillo’s Falling Man—may in fact correspond to Keough’s own personal experience of remaking himself. (The two books left in Jackson Pollock’s studio at the time of his death were Melville’s Moby Dick and D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form. While Pollock's dog was Ahab the late paintings, including “Blue (Moby Dick),” “The Deep” (1953), “Ocean Grayness” (1953), just to name a few, Thompson’s advocacy for structuralism as an alternative to survival of the fittest in governing the form of species are in some ways related to his own struggle as painter.) But, more important than the sense of intense personal transformation, is Keough’s uncanny and subtle sense of humor which enlivens the installation of the work. In “Columbine” (2003), the earliest work in the exhibition, and one of the strongest pieces besides “On Golden Pond or Get a Spine” (2010), one is not quite sure whether the male figure standing on top of an upsided down cupid head while shooting a gun is a direct reference to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, but one thing is for certain: the whole installation not only resists easy visual reading, but refreshingly brings forward the sinister and genuine aspects of humor.