A fiercely original filmmaker, poet, and artist, Jeff Keen's (1923-2012) vast body of work evokes the violence, colour, speed, and noise of the 20th century. Born in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, Keen received a scholarship to Oxford University, but was unable to attend due to the onset of World War II. After the war, Keen began studying a Commercial Art course at Chelsea, but never finished it. Though, throughout his lifetime, Keen produced an extensive repertoire, including paintings, drawings, sculpture, and Beat poetry, he is best known for his films; vibrantly flickering cinematic compilations of animation, found footage, and live action.
A pioneer of experimental film, Jeff Keen created psychedelic animations whose multiple screen projections and shrill performances helped to redefine multimedia art in Britain. Working in what Keen described as “violently disconnected and overlapping patterns”, his films transformed the world of cinema. By employing highly innovative techniques of superimposition and editing, Keen’s works became collages of comics, drawings, B-movie posters, plastic toys, burning props, and extravagant costumes. Built for speed, his early 8mm and 16mm films combined footage from Beat-era motifs, such as jazz, motorbikes, and car culture, with experimental animations. There, the achievements and atrocities of the 20th century seem to flash-by within a few short seconds. Keen’s cacophonous cinematic visions often defied categorisation. In the mid-1960s, his eccentric films developed into multiple screened, live action performances; one frame being insufficient to contain the frenzied energy of his imagination.
One of the most prolific and longest working experimental filmmakers in Britain, his oeuvre possessed a unique directness and an intuitive understanding of film archetype. Recalling American underground films by Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, and Kenneth Anger, his work also coincides with Happenings, Fluxus, and Viennese Actionism. Indeed, Keen’s interest in myth, Surrealism, and Romantic paintings complemented his love of movies and comics, and he continually absorbed new references into his work. In the early 1980s, his films became more abstract and introspective. He worked in front of the camera more, sometimes donning absurd paper disguises, almost as if life had not only merged with art, but had fully collapsed into it. This later development in his style, the unification of the medium and the personal, embodied something Keen had uttered earlier in his career: “If words fail, use your teeth. If teeth fail, draw in the sand. Whatever it takes, art must happen”.