Many people cannot wrap their head around the fact that Steve Keister’s sculptures can be divided into two groups that appear to have nothing to do with each other. This would be less of a problem if we begin with the understanding that Keister has been an outlier since the beginning of his career in the late 1970s, and that his unwillingness to fit in, no matter what the reception was to his work, made him a unique, curious, idiosyncratic, baffling, and challenging artist.
The first thing that made Keister an outlier is the siting of his sculpture, which you didn’t back into (in Barnett Newman’s phrase), but bumped your head against. At least that is what I did one evening, when I stood up from the kitchen table of the legendary collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel, and smacked my head against one of the suspended, angular sculptures that Keister began exhibiting in the late 1970s, which he wittily called USOs (Unidentified Suspended Objects). Herb and Dorothy were not all that tall, and so for them this was never problem.
I remembered that clunk when I went to see Steve Keister: Post Columbia: New Ceramic Reliefs and Fiberglass Sculpture from the 1980s at Mitchell Algus Gallery (April 1 – May 7, 2017). I am not sure why that evening came to mind, but it might have had something to with another knock I received on my noggin – figuratively speaking – when I saw three of Keister’s works from the late 1980s alongside ceramic reliefs from the last three years. It suddenly seemed as if everything that Keister has produced over the past forty years now made a different kind of sense that I need to unpack — which is one reason for writing this review.
When Keister first moved away from his USOs, he also changed his materials and methods, exchanging wood, paint, fluorescent paint, and such non-art materials as fake fur, leather, sheets of colored plastic, and rubber, in favor of spandex, fiberglass, Bondo, and found objects, usually the tubular frame of a modernist chair.
With the change in materials, Kiester’s planar geometry gave way to sleek amorphic forms with gritty surfaces. The Spandex, reinforced by fiberglass, became a tightly stretched skin, resulting in a sharp-edged, open form twisting and stretching in space. The early pieces made with this approach were suspended from the ceiling, suggesting continuity with the USOs; his later incorporation of metal frames from modernist chairs by Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, and others offered him the opportunity to place the sculptures on the floor or attach them to the wall instead of the ceiling.
In the first body of work, there were allusions to Russian Suprematism and Kasimir Malevich’s love of airplanes. By combining planar forms and fake fur, Keister acknowledged the failure of that utopian dream. From the outset it was clear that Keister was not interested in purity, and that he had an uncanny way of bringing together high art and low materials. When he began using chairs as formal armatures, the focus shifted. What was rising from the tubular frame? Was this what the human body will become? Has production effectively displaced us or made us into an appendage? What is the relationship between art and home design?
And then in the mid-1990s, Keister made another turn, which required that he use very different materials, as well as learn new processes. If the first move seemed logical, the second one was a leap that ruptured any understanding we might have previously formed about this artist’s work.
Keister’s leap was, to use Sol Lewitt’s description of a Conceptual artist, “mystic”: it seemed to come out of nowhere. As with the earlier bodies of work, the new sculptures were – technically speaking – the result of the artist’s merging of industrial materials (commercial Styrofoam packaging, its bulky containers) with a completely different kind of subject matter.
For more than twenty years, Keister has been preoccupied with pre-Columbian forms and figures. On one level, you could say that instead of contemplating the future, Keister has started looking at the past, but I think that this tells you only a small part of the story. What UFOs – from which the USOs are surely derived – and pre-Columbian forms have in common is their otherness. No matter what we do or have done – including destroying their civilization – we cannot assimilate them. I once read that Aztecs were one of the few cultures that had no jokes, that fate was everything, and there was no alternative to anything that happened. Keister seems to be imagining otherwise.
By moving from suspended forms to figures recalling pre-Columbian art, Keister went from having no geography (or place to stand or sit), to imagining the geography (or landscape) he inhabits. At the same time, and this seems to me essential to understanding Keister’s work, it is a geography that is both alien and made of discards. And there is something millenarian about it.
Keister’s inventiveness shines through in his use of Styrofoam – a ubiquitous, non-bio-degradable material that is poisoning the earth and seas –- as the molds for his ceramic sculptures. In “ Ometeotl” (2016), a presiding figure mounted on the wall of an alcove spanning the front of the gallery and facing into it, it is easy to see that the artist has transformed Styrofoam packaging into a squat ceramic figure with a mottled, grayish-green surface and horizontal slits for eyes. The mouth is a brown, rectangular ridge inserted into a shallow cavity in the bisected, symmetrical body. You see what the form once was as well as what it has become, a kind of double vision that is part of the pleasure “Ometeotl” offers. From the examples I have been able to find, Keister’s figure evokes but does not look at all like the Aztec images of the mythic Ometeotl. I am not sure how he does this but it is further evidence of his inventiveness.
Keister makes the sculptures by fitting distinct ceramic pieces together. While Ometeotl is made of a handful of parts, “Bat III” (2015) is assembled out of dozens of pieces, each glazed a particular color, sometimes two. Again, you drift between sources and outcome, contemplating a figure that is absent anything that would soften it or make it friendlier: it is a bat and it is the other, and there is something menacing about it. One question that came up while looking at the sculpture: what does it mean to want to put a bat, its wings spread, in your house? The otherness of bats infuses them with a power that Keister makes further apparent through his use of irregular abstract forms. In their otherness, they are strange, funny, and aloof. We can neither humanize nor domesticate them, which is what makes them so quietly powerful — an energy that owes something to the Aztecs’ heavy involvement with psychoactive substances — psilocybin, peyote, and morning glory plants. They even had a word for this, monanacahuia, which means to “mushroom oneself”.
Earlier, I said that there was something millenarian about Keister’s sculptures. Another name for millenarianism is cargo cult, which is a tribal society’s frequent response to the encroachment of a technologically advanced culture upon them. Cargo cults are an attempt to gain the material wealth of the advanced society through magical means. A tribal society met a technologically advanced one when Hernan Cortés, with the aid of various rivals, encountered the Aztecs, led by Moctezuma II, but the latter never became millenarian.
Undermined by treachery, famine, and smallpox, and overwhelmed by technically superior weapons, the Aztec empire was destroyed. This devastation was presaged by numerous omens, including one that foretold the coming of conquerors from distant lands riding on the backs of animals, who would vanquish and rule the Aztecs. And in some way the Aztec nobility knew that this would be the outcome when the first reports of Cortés landing with his small army reached them. If there is no alternative to fate, then any sign of it seals the outcome. They saw their annihilation and embraced it.
Keister has decided to tell a different story, one in which traces of the pre-Columbian world both persists and transforms itself. It turns the poison of our Styrofoam packaging into household gods, figures that remain other and remote, even as they sit on our walls looking at us with indecipherable expressions. By assembling them out of diverse parts, and, in some cases, placing them within a tubular frame, they regain some semblance of their psychic power. With these figures, Keister imagines an outcome different from what happened, suggesting that the story is perhaps not over.
At the same time, the wall-mounted pieces bring together art and home design. We invite these gods into our houses even though we can never domesticate them or make them our own. They are sentinels from another world. That these figures might have first emerged in a drug-induced vision should not be lost on us. Their assembly out of detritus clues us into his preternatural sense of the disposables of our everyday world.
Steve Keister: Post Columbia: New Ceramic Reliefs and Fiberglass Sculpture from the 1980s continues at Mitchell Algus Gallery (132 Delancey Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 7.