The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world. Zachary Keeting is an artist and co-founder of Gorky’s Granddaughter with Christopher Joy.
Gorky’s Granddaughter is an online documentary art project with 360+ artist video interviews.
Brett Wallace: When did you start creating art?
Zach Keeting: I found modern art at the public library. God knows what gravitational force lured me in. I’d started buying a lot of music in high school. Painting seemed to compliment rock and roll, and bedroom daydreams. One day it dawned on me that I should try and emulate what I was looking at.
Modernism felt strong, it felt risky. In it I saw courage, and I wanted to be courageous. I attempted to become a Modernist in my tastefully carpeted suburban room.
BW: We both had a similar origin in discovering art. I came across a book on Henri Matisse when I was about 14 and it changed everything for me. Which artists inspired you early on?
ZK: My sensibilities have changed a lot over time, but there were certainly artists I connected with then that I still deeply admire: Braque, Miro, Gauguin come to mind. My earliest paintings were all exceedingly tight, so the severity of Mondrian greatly appealed to me. His controlled edges (at least what I could perceive from reproductions) seemed to justify a certain amount of fussiness in my own work. As I've gotten older, movement and flux have become paramount. This development has triggered new loves.
BW: Can you talk about the narrative in your work and how it's developed over time?
ZK: I was stylistically all over the map when I started out, which was probably healthy. By 1997, mid-way through grad school, I’d settled into a razor sharp geometric aesthetic, but the paintings were odd. Unlike a lot of geometric abstraction I was aware of, I felt compelled to load them with coded, symbolic content. Looking back, I’d even describe a few of them as cryptically confessional; it’s all a bit embarrassing. Most of the pieces contained depictions of recognizable, namable things. There were houses, maps, magnets, telephone numbers, and simplified love letters. Rubik’s Cube was a recurring character. In terms of surface, everything was reductive, yet clatter reigned.
In all honesty, I was overwhelmed with the possibilities of painting (mostly the complexities of touch) so I simplified the process to focus on composition, content, and color. But by 2005 a nagging feeling had become unavoidable: the paintings didn't tell enough of the story. Despite their claustrophobic noise, they didn’t contain enough life. I felt they lacked organic vibrancy. And so in early 2005 I set out to change.
That year and early 2006 were incredibly difficult. I destroyed just about everything I made. 2007, 2008 were incrementally better. In 2009 I started working exclusively on paper, and tried to bring speed front-and-center. Something clicked. Thankfully, I wasn’t able to do as much masking (because of the paper’s delicacy) so certain boundary zones loosened up. A new translucent luminosity also appeared.
Everything mutated for the better. That year and a half on paper has been the foundation of everything since. The energetic momentum hasn’t subsided.
BW: The work has a strong improvisational feel to me: the layering, blurred boundaries, and generative forms. How important is improvisation or “accidents” in your process?
ZK: Improvisation is huge, but there’s careful organization going on as well; these two polarities are sometimes at odds, sometimes complimentary. The proportions of synthesis and discord vary from piece to piece. Slurries of difference excite me, and keep the painting process difficult. Toggling between the impulsive and the strategic is as much psychological as it is physical.
BW: On one hand, I feel speed in the work. And on the other, I sense the rich build up of layers over time to create dimensionality.
ZK: Yeah, it's all of that. They're built up with momentum, but over a long period of time. I'll hit a painting every day for a month or so. I generally have about a half dozen cooking at once. Within each grouping, even if the basic motifs are consistent, I’ll attempt to make the compositions as unique as possible. I’d hate for the work to feel formulaic, or overly programmatic, like I'm repeating the same thing day in day out. Ideally, each individual will have a distinct temperament that’s recognizable from afar.
I've been thinking of these recent abstractions, and their possible relationship to group portraiture. Can they function as evocations of small group dynamics? Energies collide constantly in this world, and the paintings should be suggestive of that tussle, realistic in a sense.
BW: How does this energy, or these multiple energies, mirror your own lived experience?
ZK: The genesis of a piece is sometimes a specific circumstance: some sensual memory, an event I stumble upon in the paper, the death of a friend, a shameful experience … but is just as often amorphous. Paintings arrive after reading many pages, after seeing many movies, after listening to countless songs, and I’ve let my mind wander, over many months. I’ve mentioned the overt symbolism in my early work. Even now, I’m inclined to attach specific ideas and attributes to certain pictorial elements. These namable characteristics help me move, they guide my hand. The significances I attach to particular curves and edges grease the strategy.
I hope these “contents” (the exact reason why I’m mixing this particular cerulean) are capable of spiraling outward, even if the intentionality is grossly distorted in transit. The confluence of these reverberations - what I send out, what you pick up, what you send back, what I receive - is a dynamic picture. Just the kind of dynamic I’ve tried to depict within this language.
BW: Are there certain hidden secrets or quirky actions that you've developed over time in your process that fit your metabolism?
ZK: Well yeah, the paintings are littered with Keeting maneuvers. I'm doing specific (hopefully they read as personal) things all over the place. You'll notice the paintings are built out of shapes and gestures. The slow careful shape-decisions have always happened on an easel. Years ago, these shapes all had tidy edges. In the last couple years (since working on paper in 2009) the shapes are less rigid, but I still use a lot of loose masking. I'll cordon off zones with ripped newspaper. It’s into these flat fields of color that I can work wet-into-wet. Acrylic is a problematic material, it's terrible in certain circumstances, but it suits my personality. I can radically revise day in, day out.
A lot of what is happening in the studio now is the result of having wrestled with this material for 20+ years; striving still to conjure things I haven't yet seen. The particulars of this search frequently involve figuring out new ways to establish wet grounds, and devise ways for these surfaces to capture adequately, beautiful gestural movement.
One of the things I've been doing recently, which I'm pretty excited about, is partially inspired by Ed Moses. He’s been incredibly innovative over the course of his career. Among other things, he’s harnessed craquelure with striking results. I've been spilling watery paint across large glossy forms. These thin washes break under the wind of a strong fan. My aim is to make certain temperamental zones severely “stressed”. These zones of crackling duress are positioned amongst placid areas, sections relatively at ease. This, if I can pull it off, should result in serious friction.
I’d hate for the paintings to look like an assortment of tricky technical maneuvers. I hope to God these moves add up to more than that.
BW: Do you think about the fusion between eastern versus western thought in your work, or the conscious versus unconscious?
ZK: Yeah, definitely. When I was 11 years old, my mom had the foresight to enroll me in karate lessons. I was a frustrated little kid, so having a place to physically explode saved me. I eventually stopped fighting in college. I came to the realization that I’d rather focus my energies in the studio. I basically got tired of punching and kicking people … and I certainly got tired of being punched and kicked! I decided making art mattered more than physical dominance. I would say that the focus of those years (learning how to center myself, how to apply strength and capitalize on flexibility) was huge.
Thoughts of harnessed aggression come into play, too, when I think of my father. He was a fighter pilot, who unfortunately died while I was a baby. I think often of his life and career: one of gracefully controlled force.
I guess you were talking more about eastern philosophy? That’s a part of it. I’ve read a fair amount of Confucius and the Tao Te Ching was incredibly important for me at a certain point. Buddhism is beautiful in many of its guises.
BW: Shifting gears a bit, Gorky's Granddaughter has over 360 videos the last time I looked. It has to be one of the world's largest documentary archives of artists in-conversation, in-studio. I’m a fan of the site too.
ZK: Oh, thank you.
BW: What have you most learned through the project?
ZK: Gorky's Granddaughter has been incredibly important for me these past 5 years. Because of the project, I’ve been given an exceedingly rare opportunity to meet a glorious hoard of beautifully inspired people. The challenge of chiseling down raw conversation footage into concise, yet meaty documents, with as much musicality as possible, has also been a gift. After a weekend of interviews, I’ll have dozens of contradictory opinions racing through my head. Juggling the aesthetics of radically different artist, sorting through all that is said for the right poetic thread, feels great.
Overlapping energies become explicit if you’ve watched a couple segments back to back. Before the interviews, I felt very isolated here off on the fringe in Connecticut. I realize New Haven isn’t that far off the radar in the grand scheme of things, but I definitely felt like a lone traveler. I’m now much less solipsistic; I’m more frequently out of my head. The generosity of the project has had it’s own deeply satisfying spiritual aspect.
My sense is that Chris Joy (my collaborator and partner-in-crime) also cherishes these experiences. Both Chris and I are maximalists, and you can see that in our paintings. We both prefer art rich in moving parts. If you’ll allow me to generalize: more decisions are better. I approach Gorky’s with the same heart. I want to take it all in. I want my curiosity to guide me, and I’d like it to take me far.
I spend a fair amount of time online looking at art, compiling names. If I can easily figure out where folks live, I’ll copy their names into organized desktop folders. I dream of maybe, just maybe, making it to Stockholm one of these day and meeting the six people in that little folder.
I've often described the project as a document of my friendship with Chris. It's a wonderful bonus that all these other artists are showing us tremendous stuff. For Chris and I, the project exists mostly in the actual encounters. I know for most people the project is videos online. But on this end, it’s the two of us setting aside a couple days a month, paling around, and having a grand time talking seriously about what we love.
BW: You guys obviously love to ask tough questions and also keep things light at times. It makes the interviews real, and enjoyable.
ZK: Yeah, laughter is good. These in-depth conversations are very often with complete strangers, which is surreal if I pause to think about it. We never know what will happen. I then bring the footage home and try to make it flow as beautifully as possible. They’ve always been roughly hewn … we have no budget. I hope the rawness comes across as truthful. It’s shaky because that's the way we hold our camera, that's our touch. The sound is the sound of the room.
It’s all improvisation. We walk in and turn on the camera. There is usually a minute or two of friendly chitchat, but for the most part, you're watching us come to an understanding with artists in near real-time. So much content is possible if you ask a couple relevant questions then get out of the way.
BW: Gorky’s is a project beyond the studio walls, and because of it, I'm sure you’ve learned a lot about artists in our communities and how we work. What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?
ZK: I would try to dissuade myself from romanticizing isolation. A certain amount of self-sufficiency is of course needed. But I romanticized aloneness. I thought it was cool to be off on the fringe making work that nobody had ever seen. Mine was a loner’s myth. And now, at 43, it's become clear how important community, shared ideas, dialogue and camaraderie is. I still spend the vast majority of my daily free time alone (painting requires it, as does my psychological make-up). But I’m now able to schedule serious conversations into the calendar every month.
BW: How has getting to know others artists and their studios enriched your life?
ZK: It's been incredibly nourishing. But there is conflict. At this point I'm having a hard time defining success for myself. Not painterly success, I’m thinking here about the career side of things. I look around and it seems there are countless options. Would earning more money undeniably be a good thing, all around? Would quitting my teaching gig and living off sales be ideal? Would moving to NYC be a savvy maneuver or suicide? And to follow through on this line of thinking: what is Gorky's Granddaughter accomplishing, big picture? Is it confusing from the outside? Will I forever be thought of as “that guy who makes the videos”?
BW: Clay Christianson wrote a book, “How Will You Measure Your Life”. He talks about causal theories and how the pursuit of short-term achievement (tangible, immediate achievement – e.g. closing a sale, getting a promotion) can lead us down a dangerous path. He compares short-term gains to long-term gains (which take time, sometimes 20 years to achieve), but bring us far greater happiness. How do you think about short vs. long-term goals?
ZK: I hope to continue painting. This world is so incredibly difficult. All across the globe millions of people suffer. I’m so damn lucky to have spent all this time in the studio, trying everyday to radiate a little light; may that continue.
In terms of the actual art? I suppose the goals are mostly short-term. Occasionally, in my 20s, I would plan out compositions. The painting process served to actualize predetermined dreams. I remember giving myself month-long goals, and sticking to it. But I tend not to enter the studio with that mindset anymore. I will tackle a triptych from time to time (which requires a certain amount of commitment). But painting, for me, at this point, is largely exploratory, more verb than noun. It’s definitely day-to-day, move-to-move, moment-to-moment.
There was one occasion, a couple years back, when I deliberately altered my palette. I was trying to harmonize with Clare Grill (with whom I was about to have a two-person show). Her art has always been incredibly subtle, devilishly tender. My solution involved a lot of grey. I’m glad I temporarily made the concession; the show was more emotional for me having made a chromatic sacrifice. In some ways, finding resonant compatibility with Clare hurt.
That said, I see my short-term and long-term goals coinciding: spontaneity in both.
BW: What’s your next play (e.g. what’s on the horizon?)?
ZK: My mom passed away a few weeks ago. I’d like to honor her in the most loving way I can. All of the upcoming work will be for her.