This April, Dreweatts is honoured to be offering 29 works by the renowned war and political artist John Keane, in a timed online auction running from 6-20 April. Born in 1954, British artist John Keane has never been one to shy away from expressing his views on politics, society and power through his art.
He came to prominence in 1990 when he was employed as the official British War Artist for the Imperial War Museum for the Gulf War. But as well as military conflicts John’s work investigates the effects of media influence and distortion in the creation of political narratives.
After decades of enlightening us and inducing debate, he feels that it is now time to hang up his smock, leave the war zones behind, and retire. However, before he disappears from the art world's stage, he is holding a celebratory auction of his work through the years, from his visual encapsulations of war-torn countries to his societal works on topical issues. With paintings dating from 1977 to 2019, the auction spans 40 years of John Keane's career. It investigates the power of politics and the press in the recording of world events as he explores the line between factual and ideological truths in the reporting of human and environmental tragedies.
Dreweatts Will Porter, co-head of Modern and Contemporary Art, sits down to discuss with John the key influences and moments in an extraordinary career and what the future holds.
John Keane says: “I am retiring as a painter but nonetheless I am very excited to be working with Dreweatts on this dedicated auction. The work selected here spans my career from soon after emerging from art school, to some of the most recent paintings I have done and I look forward to seeing them all together when they go on view at Dreweatts in Pall Mall - not least because some of them have never previously been exhibited. This is something different to the gallery shows I have been used to, but it will present a more immediate and exciting alternative. Auctions are of course unpredictable, but this will present an opportunity to test the work across as wide an audience as possible, particularly since the changes that the enforced lockdown has wrought upon the artworld.”
The auction opens with Portrait of Steve Biko. Painted in 1977, the year that Steve Biko died while in police custody and just after John graduated from Camberwell School of Art, this work has never previously been publicly exhibited. Showing early influences of Andy Warhol and Pop Art techniques, John has used an appropriated image of the political activist. The warmth of the pinks and yellows in the background and clothes contrast the piercing, knowing stare of Steve Biko. In writing about John’s work, the musician and visual artist Brian Eno refers to an “ominous charge” present in his paintings. “They don’t feel like pictures about the scenes they show; instead they seem to come right out of these scenes, as if they were there as they were happening.” (B. Eno, Forward, M. Lawson, The Art of John Keane, London, 2015, p.7).
Even at this early stage in his career, John had the ability to transport the viewer to a shared emotional space with his subject matter. This portrait is still as powerful today as it was 45 years ago when it was first painted.
In 1990, John came to prominence when he was employed as the Official British War Artist for the Gulf War. The painting Mickey Mouse at the Front, that formed part of the subsequent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in 1992, caused an outcry in the tabloids with The Sun running a front page article entitled Fury at “sick” Gulf War art. The paper had misunderstood the subject depicted, interpreting a children’s amusement arcade ride found in a Kuwait shopping centre as Mickey Mouse on the toilet. The finished painting still remains in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum and Lot 5 is a rare preliminary sketch for the finished painting. The sketch dates from 1991 and is estimated to fetch £500-£700 (+ fees).
The power of the press and the way it reports was something that John became increasingly interested in and in 1999 the Flowers Gallery exhibited a series of works depicting the media mogul Rupert Murdoch and images of HRH Princess Diana taken from the now infamous Panorama interview with Martin Bashir and HRH Princess Diana. Titled Making a Killing, John investigates the unrelenting pursuit to sell newspapers by the journalists and ultimately the newspaper owners. Lot 12, Blinking Diana, depicts a still image of Diana from the Bashir interview and carries an estimate of £600-£800 (+ fees).
In February 2012, the Russian feminist performance artist group Pussy Riot entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and staged a protest performance inside. Deemed sacrilegious, they were charged with “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” and three members were sentenced to two years in prison. They were in fact protesting against the support that the Russian Orthodox Church gave to Vladimir Putin in his election campaign. Lot 22, Fear Not, depicts three members of the group performing in the Cathedral. Their brightly coloured dresses and balaclavas are set against the Byzantine gold of the altar. Rather than a homage to God or the power of the state, it is a tribute to protest. The painting celebrates the bravery and courage of individuals who dare to stand up and question those more powerful than themselves, even in the face of dire consequences. The work is estimated at £5,000-8,000 (+ fees).
In a world increasingly inhabited with fake news, conspiracy theories and alternative realities, the work of John Keane is more relevant and contemporary today than it has ever been. A series of works called Flat Earth was created at a time of uncertainty and upheaval as Covid approached. The works in the series investigate the idea of conspiracy theories, baseless truths and constructed realities. John says: “These works invoke a profound irony - that the modern age of evidence-based science and sophisticated technology has spawned a world wide web of conspiracy theory and alternative facts, connecting a muddle of entrenched belief systems”.
This particular work from the series portrays planet earth in reactive metallic paint, referring to the elements and minerals that make up the earth’s crust, which are used globally in technology and commerce. These are obtained through mining, which John correlates with the more sinister data-mining for information, that has become more and more prevalent in recent years. The unstable process of oxidation used to create an almost ‘rusted metal’ effect on the painting denotes global fragility and ironically the painting presents an illusion of roundness, when the work is indeed flat. It carries an estimate of £1,000-£1,500 (+ fees)
Throughout his career, John has used world events and the ensuing narratives constructed by the media and politicians to question his audience’s own beliefs, actions and moral responsibilities. In The Imperial War Museum’s exhibition catalogue for John’s 1992 exhibition John Keane, Gulf, Alan Borg encapsulates the artist and his work by stating that “Our aim was, as it always is, to find an artist of personal integrity and individual vision, who would give us something other than a direct record of events.” (A. Borg, Director General, IWM, Exhibition Catalogue, John Keane, Gulf, 26 March-31 May 1992)
Commenting on the sale, Will Porter, Co-Head of Dreweatts Modern and Contemporary Art, said: “We are very excited to be working with John Keane to bring this wonderful selection of works spanning his career to the market. John Keane made his name when he was commissioned to be an official war artist for the Iraq War in 1990 and has built a reputation as a political artist questioning the status quo. Now, more than ever, the questions that John has posed over the last 40 years cannot be ignored, as empirical evidence is disregarded for baseless populist narratives. As art should, his paintings challenge us to respond. They hold up a mirror to our own sense of morality and demand a reaction.”
This is a Timed Online Auction running from 6-20 April 2023.
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