Keily Jenkins

It was a thrilling time. Riffs of Run DMC or Grandmaster Flash & Mele Mel’s “White Lines” rumbled out of boom boxes and over-amped car radios as they slinked through Loisaida streets. Soho was suffocating in its own moribund kabuki dance with late formalism, and the East Village was eating their lunch.

Keily Jenkins at the NewMuseumâs EastVillage / Graf seminar, January 2005.

I met Keily when he was installing his first show at the Fun Gallery. Keily was a baby-faced kid, and as rumor had it, he had a more than “business” relationship with glamorous Patty Astor, one of the principles at Fun. This Upper West Side boy looked pretty “straight,” but one glance at his sculpture caused my eyebrows to shoot up, and an uncontrollable chuckle left me near drooling, like one of his wacked-out dogs. Where the hell did this come from? Having spent considerable time, when Mom wasn’t watching, delving into the “bad boy lit” of Hot Rod cartoons, Mad Magazine, and underground comix, I was familiar with some of his sources. Still, after seeing these beautifully detailed renditions of this goof-ball world lovingly rendered into three dimensions, I had to admire Keily’s artistry; I was a fan.

Some art pundits claim the work is a grotesque critique of American society, full of junkie babies and toothless mouth breathers. There is, I believe, a more benevolent and uniquely American pathos represented in the works. Though evoking the degraded and perverse, the content never sinks so far into the tragic as to deny the possibility of redemption; that’s where Keily’s humor, be it black or at least dark blue, comes in.

Jenkins studied at Art and Design High School where he met a generation of kids who would spray paint their way to fame as graffiti writers. Graduating from SVA with honors, Keily mingled with the Downtown-Punk art scene. Through his contacts with Fun, he brought Uptown Graf to the attention of artists like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, thus helping create the unique cocktail of energy that fueled the East Village phenomena. After Fun closed, Keily was represented by Holy Solomon, and showed extensively at venues including Pat Hearn, Gabriel Bryers, Joe Kessler and Rich Colicchio’s 51X and Livestock galleries.

Mainstream media recognized Jenkins’s market potential, and he was approached to work with MTV, Big Audio Dynamite, and even the Pee-wee Herman Show. Larry Rivers, a neighborhood stalwart of politically incorrect Bohemia, tapped Keily as a studio assistant in a collaboration that lasted till Rivers’s death a decade and a half later. During the winter of 2002–03, a sleeping Keily was the victim of a hellatious apartment fire. Though escaping external burns, his lungs were severely scorched, and he was in a near death coma for nine months. Miraculously he regained consciousness with no apparent loss of cognizance, though his health remained fragile. Inclusion in a spate of recent museum shows and the apparent rediscovery of the East Village scene had reenergized Keily with plans for new and grander projects.

As testament to Keily’s post-pop aesthetics, if coaxed he’d reminisce about one of his proudest moments, an opportunity to hang out with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, who had come to view Keily’s California Exhibition. Big Daddy, the exotic car designer who originated “Hot Rod Weirdos” and the “Rat Fink,” was one of Keily’s idols. I still remember a conversation in which Keily confessed that he’d pass up a meeting with Picasso or hobnobbing with Jackson Pollock if he could play a round of golf with Johnny Carson. I guess for this child, raised on TV, that’s not such a strange desire. I picture Keily and the Great Carsoni on the celestial links, finishing the match and cracking jokes as they headed over to the nineteenth hole together.

—James Kalm

Contributor

James Kalm

JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene.  In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.

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