Optimism in Spite of Harsh Realities: Enduring in the Posture of Love
The Art Work of Michael O’Keefe
Art Historian and Curator
Nature and harmony, the beauty of the human form, aspects of human existence and human relations are some of the various subtle themes in the work of artist Michael O’Keefe. The title to O’Keefe’s exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art, Enduring in the Posture of Love, introduces another theme, that of love, a theme that is central to the human experience and foundational to spiritual and religious life. Yet, the figurative drawings, paintings and sculptures in this exhibition point to a sense of struggle and tension, while also giving a sense of optimism in spite of harsh realities. In my conversations with O’Keefe, he expressed an interest in peoples day to day struggles such as wrestling with self-image or identity, mental health issues and tensions in relationships. He also reflects on large-scale struggles such as xenophobia, oppression, violence and bigotry. Aspects of these harsh realities emerge in the art work of O’Keefe, however there is always the sense that his figures are enduring in the posture of love.
The conceptual themes of O’Keefe’s art are, in part, a kind of natural response in that his images and conceptual content are not planned, instead they emerge or are discovered within the initial space of various unusual material processes. O’Keefe describes this process of allowing his unconscious mind to surface and discover narrative possibilities as being like a waking dream. However, the work of his art is far from being entirely unconscious; he knowingly exerts his practiced artistic mind to organize the compositions in order to form strong presentations of the imagery that he extracted from the initial unconscious organic process.
The human figure and the history of art are both central to O’Keefe’s art work. In years past, he spent hundreds of hours drawing and sculpting the figure, and almost as much time studying in museums. The way in which the body expresses itself and organizes itself is an obsession for O’Keefe, and so is the mystery of why various masterpieces have so much power over humanity. His love of organic form and reverence for the history of art is so ingrained into his psyche that as he quiets his conscious mind in the creation process, the unconscious mind asserts these preoccupations in interesting ways. In the exhibition, there is a drawing that O’Keefe made many years ago, which is based on a small Rembrandt etching of Abraham. This drawing demonstrates his connection with historic artists. It is also worth noting that the gestural lines seen in this older O’Keefe drawing are quite similar to the lines in the paintings, drawings and sculptures that he generates today. This drawing of Abraham connects O’Keefe’s past and present and perhaps it also communicates his preoccupation with the human body, both as a subject and in terms of his body as the maker of these gestural lines.
In contrast to his portrayal of Abraham, O’Keefe’s art work today is not intended to initially represent anyone in particular. The figures that emerge from O’Keefe’s process tend to be intentionally genderless as he wants any viewer to see themselves in the art work. O’Keefe’s painting The Combrous Bundle, As With Clean Lines of Grace is an example of a piece where both the figures and the unusual technique that brought them to life can be identified immediately by the viewer. The surface has been built up with an unusual technique of dipping netting into paint and then applying the paint to the surface of a canvas, building up layer upon layer to create a kind of sculptural texture of colors. There are anywhere between 10 to 20 layers of paint in any given area of the painting. It is from the patterns within these layers of color that O’Keefe identifies the potential figures and he used brushes and successive controlled layers of color to carefully extract the figurative images. O’Keefe believes his process is a metaphor for life; life is complex with so many layers and it never looks like what we expect.
Upon entering O’Keefe’s exhibition, one immediately encounters two of the Seasons Variation(s). The Seasons Variation(s) are also sometimes referred to by O’Keefe as the Ecclesiastes Series, referring to one of the twenty four books of the Old Testament. The exhibition prominently presents ten of the original twelve life sized sculptures from this series. In their own way, the installation of these initial two sculptures points to the exhibition title in the way that they relate to one another. O’Keefe himself positioned the two sculptures so that their hand gestures reach towards one another, as if they are trying to touch or communicate something to each other. There is a kind of tension between their outstretched arms. The figures collective gesture seems to represent how we as humans endure through trials and tribulations with our love for one another intact.
Each of the Seasons Variation(s) is derived from the mold of one original sculpture. Three molds were created by O’Keefe to capture the top, middle and bottom of the original sculpture. Plasters were fashioned from these molds and these derivatives were recombined and refigured, with suggestions of both male and female figures in each. The artist was attempting to see how many compelling variations of the original sculpture he could produce from recombining. Each twists and turns in different ways, with textured edges and ambiguous curves in the plaster, and the result is a compelling sense of life and movement.
The surfaces of the Seasons Variation(s) have a sense of being complete yet unfinished. On the one hand, these sculptures appear as if they are a coming together, still being created before our eyes. On the other hand, there is a destructive theme to each of these sculptures. The surfaces and textures can be read as both a building up and a tearing down. Upon consideration of this tension, O’Keefe connected these sculptures with Ecclesiastes. He felt as if the books most famous quotes embodied his aspects of his intentions. Ecclesiastes 3: 1-3 states, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up.” O’Keefe ingeniously refers to this series of plaster works as Ecclesiastes Variations or Seasons Variations because they seek to embody both life and death, being born and dying, a breaking down and putting back together.
Equally layered and complex is O’Keefe’s large scale painting Lines of Grace Designed to Predict Finalities, a 12 feet by 7.5 feet drawing on canvas. This piece, with its massive scale and challenging vocabulary, lends itself to a meditation space for concentrated examination and mindful appreciation. A time-lapse video portraying the making of this piece accompanies the exhibition, showing the ambitious and unique process that O’Keefe used to make this work of art. In the video, one can see how the expansive canvas was repeatedly brought down onto the floor and then up against the wall. While the work is on the floor, O’Keefe lays down intuitive and playful networks of lines. He dips a six foot string into a container of paint, bringing it out of the bucket coated with paint and then he whips the string onto the canvas, leaving a gestural line each time the string strikes the canvas. O’Keefe’s whole body is utilized as he violently lashes and thrashes networks and systems of twisted lines upon the painting. With the painting up against the wall, the artist observes and studies the work in progress to look for patterns, movements and rhythm. With a watchful and critical eye, the artist begins to paint away the string lines that don’t serve the developing composition in order to bring out the chosen forms and arrangements. Over and over again the artist drops the painting to the floor and wildly gestures paint coated strings onto the canvas and then he tips up the painting to vanquish carefully chosen portions of painted lines. Through the adding and subtracting of haphazard string gestures, figures and portions or remnants of human representations emerge in a compelling ensemble of shape and line. Finding the seven explicit figures, as well as the other possible figures, results in pleasure and amusement for each viewer.
O’Keefe employs a rare and unique vocabulary to speak to the viewer. Echoes of art history, a full range of human expression, beauty and harmony all emerge from his exceptional expressions. O’Keefe’s art pieces are reflections of his personal experiences and his interactions with the world around him, but they also invite the viewer to seek personal meaning as they interpret his work. O’Keefe’s highly complex titles gently guide us towards our own meaningful interpretations. Amid a world filled with tension, his call is for empathy, care and love. With an intense desire to connect us to nature, to other people and to ourselves, O’Keefe’s art is a statement of optimism in spite of harsh realities. Artist Michael O’Keefe inspires us to remain and endure in a posture of love for one another.
Michael O’Keefe, 2012, (text accompanying the exhibition Continuum, at Valley House Gallery)
In general, with my work there are two parts to the narrative; there is the image or the figuration, and there is the material process. All works of art are, in their final state, conclusions of a making-process and any given process can be surmised with a little bit of informed looking, but with my work I wish to explicitly present the process. I want the materials and formal building blocks to stand naked, unveiled, so that the process itself becomes part of the narrative. This is because the characters, images and fantasies that are formed in the work are born out of the process. The expressions and narratives of the work are rooted in my individualistic mind, but it is the process, the act(ion), that allows the fictions to be born.
My artistic pursuits explore the fields of sculpture, drawing and occasionally painting. One form is never preliminary to the other, although each tends to inform the others in various ways. All of the work is very dependant on process as a means to discover content. The preferred processes are those that generate a certain amount of unpredictability, accident and chance.
Quantum Art Review (http://quantumartreview.com)
Michael O’Keefe in Conversation with Jacob Hicks
By Jacob Hicks
Michael O’Keefe (www.michaelokeefestudio.com) is an artist living and working in Dallas, Texas. He is the founder of the O’Keefe Studio, “an independent teaching space dedicated to arts education” (theokeefestudio.com), located in Richardson, TX. I had the pleasure of encountering Michael’s art in my first year as an undergraduate student at SMU in Dallas. He had completed his MFA and donated a sculptural work, The Gaits, a 12-foot wide colored plaster relief, to Meadows School of the Arts. It met me on the way to class every morning; the work and I developed a temporal relationship.
Within, bisected profiles of Giacometti-like shadows walk, pace, idol, and are contained behind a rope tether. A cubistic shattered perspective drives your eyes into a shallow world like a skipping stone meets the rhythmic rejecting tension of a still pond’s surface. The forms merge with the rough texture of the plaster, modeled like a rocky, natural cave wall. They are carved (I want to believe but know I can’t) not by a man’s intent but by deep time. The shadows, with hunched shoulders and tense, sad postures, are the ghosts of man’s waking mind. They are the poor in the street, the hurried in a bustling city, and a thousand other audible reflections.
Michael’s work is minimal, elegant, raucous, soft. He skims and recombines a wide, multi-cultural history with influences emerging from Cambodian sculpture to El Greco altarpieces. What follows is an e-mail conversation about the nature of the artist’s work and thought…
QAR: You describe your completed works as a.) evidence of a decisive process b.) character or fantasy. It seems to me that there is a narrative to your art that is separate from process-am I fully off-base? If I am not, tell me some of the stories your works tell.
MO: I see my work as having two distinct, but not always separate narratives, that of the making process and that of the image depicted. The image depicted is always born out of the making process, and it is my desire that, within the image, there always remain unveiled evidence of the making process. The characters that exist in my work are narrative in nature, however the narrative or any of the specifics of these figures are never predetermined. The material process, as has to be the case, is always loosely predetermined, but allows for shifts and unusual deviations. So, in the end, the figures and the narrative context of those figures are discovered or uncovered through the process of pushing around and sorting through formal relationships. There are themes in my work that I recognize time and time again. So, naturally, the themes that animate my conscious mind find a way to assert themselves in the work without me ever having to embark on the suffocating experience of setting out to illustrate a theme.
QAR: There is an age-old beef between drawing and sculpting. Which encapsulates more complexity? Which is the higher form? Are these modes of creation different sides of the same coin for you? Can one form express what the other can’t? Which medium makes your heart sing the loudest?
MO: Both drawing and sculpture, when good, make my heart sing. I see them as two distinct forms with a lot of crossover. I engage with both drawing and sculpture equally, and I am constantly looking for opportunities to allow the one form to lead the other into uncharted (for me) territory. I often wonder how I can approach a certain drawing realization in sculptural terms or vice versa. One can read some about this debate over which form is more complex or “higher”, or the similar debate regarding painting and sculpture, but mostly this is the sort of thing one hears at the bar when in grad school; I have always found this sort of conversation to be a distraction from more meaningful things, like time spent working in the studio. All art forms have their limitations, and in order to make hearts sing any art form needs to be pursued to the highest point possible. How high a form reaches has to do with the depth of the artist more than any inherent qualities of the form.
QAR: How (or did) a formal education in the arts expand your process? What kind of work did you make before your schooling and does it resonate in the work you make now?
MO: Since I can remember, making drawings, paintings or sculptures has always been the same for me, felt the same in terms of motivation, impulse, desire, playfulness and discovery. The institutions I have attended have cemented my idea that institutions are not necessary for an artist to make mature and sophisticated work. Formal educations are more about social networking and affirmation than anything else. Yet, today, one has such great access to other artists, dead and alive, that the institution is less necessary even in terms of the networking and affirmation. Having said that, I needed to learn to draw and mix plaster somewhere, so I am grateful to the teachers that taught me these things. But, for me, the real education has always been found in the independent acts of time spent working, time spent looking and time spent reflecting.
QAR: What is the place of the material artist in the digital/industrialized age? How can artists concerned with formalism and craft contextualize their mode of working in the age of the capitalist studio system (Koons, Murakami, Hurst, Ozeri, Wiley, on and on)?
MO: I would first point out that the “capitalist studio system” has existed for thousands of years. I will address the rest of the question with a story: Soon after 9/11, when I was living in NYC, I took a drive with Christopher Cairns, an older artist I was working with at the time, out to the Johnson Atelier in Mercerville, NJ to see the work of an artist who I will leave unnamed. Given the recent events and my age (23) I was rather emotional. The work we saw that day made me angry as I wondered why such superficial and gimmicky crap (as I might have called it at the time) was celebrated. As we drove back together I expressed to Chris my feelings about the work. As I recall, Chris said something along the lines of, “Look, you best realize right now that there are many different types out there and that the term artist is attributed to all sorts of people, many of which have nothing to do with what you are interested in. You need to recognize the type of artist that you are and forget about the rest, forget about what is celebrated, collected, reviewed, and the rest. The artist whose work we just saw is no more akin to you then a used car salesman. You don’t get upset when a loser used car salesman makes money off of sleazy deals so don’t get upset about this. Just do your work and think of him as a used car salesman if you need to.”
QAR: Favorite living artist? Favorite dead artist?
MO: My favorite living artist is myself. I think at a certain point this has to be the case for an artist. My favorite dead artists are far too many to count, but if I were to begin to make the list, at the top would be the cave painters from Lascaux and Chauvet, and not because they are at the beginning of the history of art, but because of the nature of the works.
QAR: If you could take anyone dead or alive to dinner, who would it be? Why?
MO: I have never liked this question. However, after having particularly interesting dreams last night, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to visit with Carl Jung and talk to him about the correlation between my vivid dream life and my need/desire to, in my waking hours, create images and objects. But then again, these days, this might be a better conversation to have with a Neuroscientist…maybe I would go to dinner with Jung and some art loving Neuroscientist like V.S. Ramachandran.
QAR: I feel a lot of influence of the modernists in your work (Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi), I also feel deep Greek classicism. Talk to me about how these worlds collide in the art you make.
MO: These influences are present in my work and they are the influences that are most often perceived in my work. These influences are not so much intended as they are accepted and embraced. Although I would like to point out that, for me, there are other very important influences such as Medieval Sculpture, Cambodian sculpture or painters such as El Greco and Rembrandt. In one sense the Classicism/Modernism evidence is simply a reflection of my love for these two moments in the history of art. In another sense it is indicative of one of the themes in my work, that is, the struggles of a 21st century artist (myself) of European ancestry living in America who has invested a lot of time and energy in communing with work from the past as a means to become a relevant contemporary artist. And part of this theme is my rejection of the fact that many would say to be a relevant contemporary artist of European decent living in America in the 21st century one has to go out their way to divorce themselves form any history that precedes their 13th birthday.
QAR: What is your opus to date, use words to give a physical description of it.
MO: It will most likely always be the case that I will see my most important artistic accomplishment to be the entire body of work to date at any given moment. There are a few works that stand out as better than the rest, but in the end even those works are launching pads for the next work. At the moment a work comes into its completed state, I am already shoving off in search of the next work.
Interview with Estelle Fonteneau, included in the exhibition catalog for the 2014 Valley House Gallery exhibition, Michael O’Keefe: Sculpture and Drawings
Michael, I first saw a piece of your sculpture at a mutual friends house. My eyes kept being drawn back to this rather small plaster sculpture that I first thought was quite fully abstract. Gazing, I began to see a male figure among the fragmented plaster, with legs – I think there were even three legs- that suggested multiple gestures all at once. The figure somehow evoked a sense of a Greek “Kouros” figure. I saw a solid composition, a quiet confidence, I rarely see in contemporary art.
The second time I encountered your art was during a demonstration you were giving for families at the Nasher Sculpture Center. You haphazardly and with little clear intention let a black ink-laden string fall gently, over and over again, onto large white paper lying on the floor. Each time the string was carefully drawn away from the paper there was left a dark and organic or pure line; all of the lines seemed to have a life of their own. Once the ink dried, you tipped up the paper and, watching it, you seemed to listen as if the marks were guiding you, telling you what they wanted to become through your hands. You then brought your hand to the paper and, with a simple mechanical pencil, began incorporating various tones amongst the initial lines. Through the rhythm and rhymes of the lines, you created volume with the soft grey graphite and I saw human figures and animals appear as if they had always been there and just needed your hand to reveal them.
EF: Though you work in different mediums, the gentle force of your hand is clearly visible. Do you equate the layers of plaster with the layering of lines? And how is it that you have come to do both drawing and sculpture so completely?
MO: There is, of course, the inevitable difference that the drawing is an image, an implied space and the illusion of form, and the sculpture is an actual object in space. But, for me, there is a tremendous amount of overlap within the vocabulary of the drawing and sculpture. The way I generate my building blocks, in both cases, is quite similar. The figure as my general subject is, of course, consistent. And the type and/or degree of abstraction I employ is very similar in both forms. There is bound to be a strong sense of overlap between the two disciplines because I have always done both and each form has always informed the other and pushed the other forward. I am constantly asking myself how I can take a certain quality found in the one form and translate it into the other form. In a way, drawing and sculpture have always taken turns leading the way in my steady progression as an artist.
EF: The influence the one has on the other is certainly a reason to continue to do both drawing and sculpture, but what about in the beginning, when you were a very young artist?
MO: I think drawing comes most naturally to me, it always has, since I was a little kid. And it was later, when I was in college, that I developed a love for sculpture and I think it was the physicality of sculpture that first attracted me; that is, the physical demands of making the thing, as well as the materials in my hands. But, then again, maybe I would say that I’ve always found the immediacy of drawing thrilling and the sensuality of sculpture irresistible.
EF: I would think I am not the first person to point out the interesting, if not peculiar, fact that when you use color in your drawings, even when you are working on canvas with paints, you prefer monochrome, and, yet, you make sculptures that incorporate a more complex color palette. Do you favor the expression of the line? Do you see the vibration of color as distracting from the vibration of the line? And how do you see the color working in the sculpture?
MO: I suppose it is a little bit peculiar that I use color more and in more complex ways in some of my sculpture then in any of my two-dimentional work. But I would say that, when color is an active ingredient in my work, I am using it in very basic ways. Color is a world that I don’t have real mastery over. I see color well, I think, but when it comes to harnessing the full potential of color it is out of my grasp. If I had more time I would like to continue to study painting as part of my studio life. And so I don’t necessarily or inherently favor line over color, it is just a matter of training or practice. In the recent head sculptures, the color is intended to contribute to the expressive tone of the work. Also, the color, which is always attached to a shape, is meant to be the provocateur relative to the form and to the idea of “the head”. In these heads the primary features are not eyes, nose, mouth, ears, etc, but rather color, shape, texture, pattern, line.
EF: When you talk about generating your building blocks or establishing the vocabulary, what part does chance play in this stage of the process; how you make your plaster pieces or lines, how you put the plaster pieces together or what you read within the lines, textures or forms?
MO: Chance and accident have become very important for my work. I could even say that these are essential factors. I find that my imagination has limitations, that my hands want to repeat certain tendencies that have proven to be effective. This tendency to repeat things is part of human nature, I think. And as a creative individual who desires to see never seen before relationships, qualities and characters, it is my best bet to employ chance and accident to help me reach beyond my limitations. This is why I first thought to make drawings with my pencils set in the end of a drill; I had found I had too much control and comfort with my pencils in my hand and so I looked around my studio for the thing that might rob me of that control. I had this large, loud, powerful industrial drill that my grandfather had left me; it was just the thing.
EF: There is such tenderness to your drill drawings, your figures sway as if caressed by the wind. How do you create such an organic line and such movement with a repetitive aggressive machine?
MO: I have to say that even with my pencils set in a drill moving at full throttle I have developed some good control. At this point, for me, the drill as a drawing tool is more about a certain type of line quality and certain rhythmic patterns then it is about losing control. It is also about the energy of the aggressive machine; with anyone’s drawing, the action or gesture of the drawing hand, body or, in this case, hand, body and machine are always present in the finished work. The mechanical repetition of the drill is present in the patterns of lines. But what is also present, and I think this is where you see the tenderness, is the steady sweeping motions that I have to make in order to lay down a progression of marks that have some meaningful space between them. Keep in mind that the pencil is set in the drill at an angle so it touches down and strikes a mark on every rotation. So, as the drill moves at a super fast speed, my arms are pulling or pushing the spinning drill, and sometimes twisting as I go. The contrast of these two types of movement, my arms and the motor of the drill, often reminds me of one of those lovely violin player busking in the New York City subways during the noise of rush hour… it also reminds me of one of those plastic bags dancing around in the crosswinds of cars on 635, the way the bag so gracefully escapes from underneath an SUV.
EF: These same qualities, the gentle swaying, are present in your Laurel Figures … Is the title for this series a reference to Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne”?
MO: The reference to “laurel” in the title of that group of sculptures is more of a reference to the myth of Apollo and Daphne itself, the meaning inside the myth. Although, when I first saw Bernini in person in Rome it was really unbelievable.
EF: In your sculptures, I see both the energy of the “Nike of Samothrace” and the Cycladic figures… You studied in Italy, what Masters first spoke to you? Was it Bernini?
MO: The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa… and his Aneas and Anchises both had a great impact on me. But I can’t say Bernini stands out for me as an extraordinarily important influence on me. It was when I was 20 years old that I spent some time in Italy, and after that I traveled to various European cities as often as I could afford to, always spending most of all of my days in great museums. I’ve always had a very natural and strong interest in art history. But I would say that all of the great masters and many of the overlooked masters have helped me understand something, one thing or another. That is to say, I have allowed myself to be influenced by an entire ocean of art historical works. And the influences surface in my work in various ways, sometimes in ways that even surprise me. At this point my work in not at all derivative of art historical works, nor is it about my love of art history. It is more that I have pieced together a visual vocabulary that, I hope, allows me to speak an ancient language… maybe even a prehistoric language.
EF: I see your assembled fragments as whispers that, once united by your hands, create a piece as old as time – to rival the height of classical Greece/ early Hellenistic.
MO: You know that type of whisper where someone whispers something in your ear and you can’t really make out the exact words, but there are other factors that help communicate the content of the whisper, even when the words are inaudible… A powerful image needs only whisper in this way… it does needs not words, has no words, but rings true.
EF: You manage to create powerful images and objects with such non-noble tools and materials.
MO: Yes, perhaps I love prehistoric art best of all, cave painters and sculptors.
EF: In French we say “art rupestre”, which refers to the prehistoric art made from or inscribed on rock. Tell me more about your preference to work directly in plaster for your 3-dimensional work? How does the plaster assist you in your search for new relationships?
MO: Plaster is a material that allows me to do many things. It is the most versatile sculptural material that I am aware of and it is a material that I know very well. In its various states I can capture a vast range of textures through casting processes, I can carve, model, construct, and I can go back and forth between adding and subtracting, development and decay, defining and discovering.
EF: The plaster seems to lend itself to certain qualities that you admire… many figures in your work are deconstructed, reconstructed, and not clearly defined in terms gender, direction or orientation, action… yet the human figure in wholly present. This ability seems to reveal your deep love and knowledge of the human figure. What role does drawing from the model play in your daily practice? I assume it is something you always go back to, the air you breathe…
MO: Well, I would say that my years spent drawing and sculpting from the figure inform everything I do, artistically speaking. I no longer work from the model, and I have not done so with any regularity in many years. Occasionally, I will work in the classroom, in between addressing the students. But I do continue to have regular opportunities to interact with the model as I am teaching. In a sense it is the same thing to look, to observe the model, as a teacher as it is to look and observe as the drawer or sculptor. The obvious difference being the lack of follow through or execution in the case of the teacher. But, yes, I study the body in my own way on a daily basis. When I meet someone, when I sit here and talk to you even, I am observing the body language, the posture, proportions, gesture, movement, forms, relationships…
EF: I must say, there is a sensuality in your work that seems to transcend eroticism…
MO: The “sensuality” that you are thinking of or seeing is the body, and love… everything I make, all of the relationships that suit my compositional needs are informed by my years spent studying “the figure”. Even the relationships that can’t be pinned directly to a body part have to resonate with the rhyme and reason of nature, as demonstrated in the body, as I know it.
EF: Having attended your Figure Drawing class, I was struck by the poetry of your suggestions, critique and instruction. How conscious are you of the importance of your words in the classroom and how they relate to your work?
MO: The poetry in a piece, for me, is miles away from my ability to articulate thoughts about art in the classroom or in conversation… in most cases, the poetic moment is something I could not offer a verbal rationale for or an explanation of…
EF: Previously, in an email exchange, you mentioned that the most recent series of Drill Drawings, the Sons and Lovers Series, gets its name from the famous D.H. Lawrence novel, Sons and Lovers. In that same conversation you sent me two quotes from D.H. Lawrence. It seems appropriate, at this point, for me to read those quotes: “Design in art, is a recognition of the relation between various things, various elements in the creative flux. You can’t invent a design. You recognize it, in the fourth dimension. That is, with your blood and your bones, as well as with your eyes.”
“My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle.”
MO: Yes, aren’t those wonderful quotes. Of course, I sent you those quotes because they speak quite well for how I feel about such matters.
Michael O’Keefe, 2010 (text accompanying the exhibition Lady Classical, Mother Metamorphosis, and other Holy Fables, at Valley House Gallery)
My work is necessarily figurative, not because it depends on the object it portrays, but rather because the figure, as an entity in its own right, is the pivot around which my world moves.
I can’t find any verbal equivalents for the statements made in my work. The uniqueness of my creative voice lies in my strange characters inhabiting their own space. I can’t really tell you in words what they stand for. The complete meaning of the work remains uncertain even to me. If there is a common theme perhaps it is that I think man, harried, debased, and brutalized by a malign world, is still powerful in creative spur and enduring in the posture of love.
Dallas Arts Revue, 2012, Review by Kim Alexander
On Michael O’Keefe’s show at Valley House Gallery: Lady Classical, Mother Metamorphosis, and other Holy Fables
In spite of his classical themes, Michael O’Keefe has failed to grasp the danger of hubris. In fact, he so brilliantly pushes classical beauty to the edge that she’s liable to grab Athena by the ankle and whisper new tales to her. Jealous Athena may concede, but Dallas ought to rush to Valley House just in case. O’Keefe’s work is the sort of affront the gods take seriously. Our eye is accustomed to the trail of Picasso the Minotaur, busting through ancient, crusted forms and setting a quick pace for roughly handled classical beauty. But, O’Keefe, in contrast, slows the row down to something else altogether. A sinuous trunk, a turn of the hip, a tilted derriere, an elegant crook of wrist or arm, all peek quietly from tenderly handled layers of chaos, detritus, and frank construction. O’Keefe’s elegant restraint and disciplined attention amount to a calm, linear, classic beauty that shimmers on the edge of disintegration.
O’Keefe’s processes and raw materials stand naked so that one can easily follow his line of exploration. Let’s take an Icarus drawing on paper, for example. First, of all, O’Keefe avoids preconceptions by starting with chance. He dribbles ink from a swinging string so that the work begins by imposing on him, rather than vice versa. As he responds to the accidents of line and splotch, O’Keefe’s eye, trained by years of work on the figure, is drawn to the messes that intimate the human form. Next he builds a tonal range that further articulates aspects of a body. The tension between the mess and the figure remains subtly defined. If the hands of Ingres and Pollack could have met in a hushed melody of primordial drip and elegant gesture, O’Keefe’s sinuous semi-abstracted figures would have had a precedent.
The same chance-induced line of interchange defines O’Keefe’s sculptures. He begins the process by creating crude building blocks of plaster. To mold the plaster, he lays out a bed of clay with bumps and hollows to provide a vocabulary of contouring. Then, he presses into the clay with cord, wire, fingers, toes, tape, plastic—anything that will accentuate the nature of the plaster when it is molded in the clay bed. Once the plaster is set, he pulls it from the clay mold and smashes it. The resulting chunks of plaster, with coarse textures of molded debris and broken edges, are the accidents that confound and confirm O’Keefe’s figures. “Lady Classical,” now cast in bronze, bears traces of this automatic beginning, but she inhabits the junk of her instigation with ancient grace and convincing gesture. What a relief to see that beauty in art is legal again, not to mention fresh and vigorous. “Advancing Woman” simply can’t be photographed. The dignity of her posture may be recorded to some extent, but the psychological weight of her requires a walk around. She appears to advance and fall back at the same time. Her insistent, extended foot and convincing, improbable shifts of weight make her decidedly human, in spite of her tumbling forms of jagged plaster. She is at once shifting, toppling debris and Nike of Samothrace and her own, bare being. O’Keefe’s process, while incorporating the tradition of the figure and voice of his own hand, carries its own authority because it descends and ascends from chaos. His materials retain their nature, and the effect is one of perpetually undulating and unfolding revelation, a new mythology that is so convincing that he may have to seek a pardon from the gods.
Kim Alexander, 2007
The poet Rainer Rilke wrote about the danger of art; that artists go “to the very end in an experience.” Since it stands to reason that the end, that edge, of an experience would perpetually slide into newer and newer territory, some artists simply insinuate development through increasing spectacle. But Rilke was not referring to the danger of outrage or scandal, but to the danger of investing in a specific path of continuing revelation. This specificity, the attentiveness and reverence toward the edge of an idea, is beautifully played out by the spectrum of Michael O’Keefe’s work at the Norwood Flynn Gallery. Piece by piece O’Keefe aims for new bearings in an expressive course. He loops back through art heroes to push the imprints of his own physicality, searching out the shifting demands of that great diva, the figure. Hints of Giacommeti, Rodin, and the ancient Greeks bubble and convulse with disrupted forms and seductive surfaces. In his earlier pieces O’Keefe’s figures sprout multiple identities that dissolve and coalesce. In more recent works the same shifting is evident, but through formal rather than literal properties. In each piece O’Keefe simultaneously articulates a whole while subverting that articulation with an increasingly complex range of gestures. His evolving strategies delineate a slippery frontier where the danger lies in pushing a fragile, quiet experience to its limit without violating it.
A Response, Dana Tanner, 2006
“Sometimes they confound standingness, these pieces. They mock weight and defy every notion of solidity and balance. Look beyond the collapse of planes, the confusion of limbs, the impossibility of figures rising tall and upright on backwards feet. The real visual jujitsu is the problem of time. All forms emanate from a single impulse, an inner movement spinning into a multiplicity of expressions. Born from this instant is a single tangle of possible worlds. Look from every angle, but an event is not unfolding. No, these are not captured moments. This is not a stream of consciousness. This is a figure in which everything is happening at once. It is what the playwright Erik Ehn defined as metaphor: “two things inhabiting the same space, trembling in impossibility.” To look is to be overthrown by this impossibility. To look and to see is to dismantle the mental construction of time and face all moments existing in simultaneity. To look and to see is to become undone.”
Langdon Review of The Arts In Texas, Volume 9, 2012
Essay by Kent L. Boyer
“I don’t know who any of these figures are,” artist Michael O’Keefe says as we talk about him finding figures in his deliberately random abstract expressionistic drawings or his shattered slabs of plaster. “They’re nobody in particular, either male or female, both or neither.”
Despite his not knowing, we are sitting in his former-garage studio on a hot June afternoon literally surrounded by these, these… people. There are drawings and paintings with figure shapes in them, four-foot plaster figures, heads six feet tall, bronze busts, and a life sized man. Some have defined faces, some merely a suggestion of the planes of a face, and some are sanded smooth. Most lack color, or if there is color, it’s muted earthy pinks, faded yellows, and cool grays.
O’Keefe is himself as colorful as his plaster figures are not. He is quiet and spare but at the same time wonderfully open, articulate, intellectual, and introspective about his work. Michael is a working artist.
Michael O’Keefe explores the human psyche with art. “My works are attempts to give a body to various aspects of the human psyche,” he explains. “In some cases the work reflects my own psyche and in others it reflects something outside myself.” O’Keefe is an observer of gesture and portrays gesture in his work. Like a dancer, he uses his own body movement and gestures to create the raw material that become his figures.
He is extremely interested in how the viewer of his work interacts with it. He opines that figurative artwork opens viewers to the whole range of human response – since we all know what it is to be human. Michael hopes that his work allows people to project onto the figure an extension of their experience. He cherishes that interaction viewers have with his work and carefully anticipates it as he creates.
O’Keefe works in his studio every day. The workspace, a converted double garage, contains works-in-progress in most of his current media – plaster, drawing, and painting. It’s unexpectedly tidy considering he works in plaster – a medium I had expected would leave its messy, dusty memory everywhere. A six-foot “Headscape” sculpture – a stylized colored plaster head – has just been sealed with a thick, smooth, glossy finish; the corals, pinks, grays, whites, and yellows of the plaster blushing with the attention. Two large inked-string drawings in progress are carefully clamped to easels. A life-sized Headscape bust in its beginning stages occupies his working pedestal in the center of the studio. A number of three-foot plaster assemblages with tree bark texture imprimatur wait patiently for their creator to find the figure within.
Michael explains that plaster provides endless opportunities for his art. He describes plaster’s consistencies and states as a continuum from powder to liquid to a yogurt-like consistency to icing to clay-like properties to a solid that he can subtract from, sand, or carve. A converted Lane cedar chest is his plaster bin, the furniture-makers mark still visible.
As an “emerging artist” O’Keefe divides his work time into creating art and also teaching it. He says he enjoys teaching and accepts it as a part of his life, but nothing is as natural to him as creating art. He agrees with my observation that for many artists, teaching has a performance aspect requiring a different kind of energy than creating.
Michael actually discovers the figures in his work rather than planning and then executing them. It’s a fundamental and thoughtful switch from the way many artists work. At a very important milestone-time in his career, he says, “I didn’t know what I should draw or sculpt. That’s when I began to find ways to extract images rather than predetermine the imagery and execute accordingly.” Over the years, he’s experimented with honing his extraction techniques in all the media in which he works. But no matter what random acts he employs to begin his process, what results is inevitably figurative.
In fact, the essence of Michael’s output is tied up in his process. In his artist statement he writes, “the process itself becomes part of the narrative. This is because the characters, images and fantasies that are formed in the work are born out of the process.”
He has been viewing nature with an anthropomorphic eye his whole life. Michael tells the story of he and his brother growing up and playing in the woods of New Hampshire. They saw figures in the trees they used as landmarks for their play – the “Dolly Parton” tree, the “Captain Hook” tree, or the “Elephant” tree. Like the child that sees a teddy bear in the clouds, Michael has never stopped seeing figures where others don’t. It’s a special sight gift that he works very hard not to lose.
O’Keefe has a traditional education in studio art – a B.F.A. from Muhlenberg College (Allentown, PA) and an M.F.A. from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He’s also studied at New York Studio School, the International School of Art (Umbria, Italy), and Maryland Institute College of Art.
Despite his many years of academic study, however, Michael took full charge of his own self-study of the visual arts. He talks about spending “hundreds of hours” in art museums in the United States and abroad. He spent years and years working from the model and developing his skill. Between degrees, he lived and worked in “a hole in the wall” in New York, continuing to learn and make – but not yet show – his art. He describes those years as “formative years.”
When asked about supporting himself with his art, Michael readily says he’s not there yet and talks about his teaching career. He has taught at Southern Methodist University, Collin County College, Brookhaven College, and Eastfield College. He’s also taught at the Creative Arts Center of Dallas and at Bonny Leibowitz Studio in suburban Dallas. He’s a working sculptor monthly at The Nasher Sculpture Center where he demonstrates sculpture and interacts with patrons. Several years ago, senior architects at Corgan Associates in Dallas asked Michael to create a curriculum and teach younger architects – those educated exclusively using computer software – how to draw. It’s been one of his favorite teaching jobs ever since. He’s also been a visiting artist at several colleges and served on a number of selection juries.
During those formative years in that hole in the wall in NYC, Michael was employed as a Workshop Artist for a non-profit organization called Hospital Audiences, Inc. (HAI). He designed and taught drawing, painting, and sculpture workshops at various community facilities dedicated to the education and well being of high functioning mentally ill people. Many of his participants were mentally ill chemical abusers. He saw some of these people weekly over a period of years. Some had astonishing natural talent when they were encouraged to go into their imaginations and feel free. Art, it turns out, is primordial brain behavior – we are all born artists, but most people “learn to stop” as they grow up. Michael’s students demonstrated this more distinctly than many.
Michael remembers this job enthusiastically. HAI was committed to bringing the arts to the disenfranchised and marginalized in NYC. Their mission also helped artists (musicians, performers, dancers, and visual artists) survive so they could also do their art. The experience made an obvious impact on the teacher as well as, I’ll bet, his students. “Edward Cooper,” he says, easily recalling one of the many students’ names that he’ll never forget.
Although representational art is extremely rare for him, several years ago he created a bronze bust portrait of a favorite workshop participant. Leroy hailed from a very rough Brooklyn neighborhood and suffered from both a serious developmental delay and bipolar disease. Michael tells the story of this remarkable man – and the story reveals as much about Michael as it does about his subject.
Leroy is a large man, probably 6’5″ and at least 230 pounds. Every Tuesday when I came to the day treatment center he frequented he would see me and say, “I hate when you come,” but as soon as he started to speak, a huge and brilliant smile came over his face. Then he would come join our group. When I met Leroy he had the reading level of a second grader, yet he often told me he was “going to be a business man some day.” For the next two years I saw Leroy just about every week and watched as he obsessively read the NY Times to learn to read. Not long before I left NYC for Dallas, Leroy attained his GED. His accomplishment was remarkable. I loved this man for who he was – for his smile and courage.
Michael is sanguine and realistic about the lifestyle of a working artist. He says he was lucky as a young man to have friendships with several older working artists, so he saw first-hand the unpredictability of the life. He jokes that while his parents have been supportive of his career choice, “my dad is practical and probably still concerned that I don’t have a retirement account.” He understands there are sacrifices inherent in being an artist and says he’s gotten pretty good at not letting money worries stress him. Becoming a father a few years ago has challenged his definition of “having enough” – like most parents he wants his son to have it all – but it hasn’t derailed him.
As an undergraduate student, Michael didn’t think much about what he would do for a career. Once he graduated, however, he decided. “I’m an artist – I’m going to go for it,” he thought. He says his internal arbiter told him “to keep going until I hit a brick wall. I haven’t hit that wall yet.”
I bring up the business side of being a working artist. Michael says the commercial aspect of being an artist – pricing and selling work and so on – is somewhat awkward for him. He’s comfortable taking advice about these subjects from longtime artist friends and from the gallery that represents him, Valley House Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Dallas. He talks happily about a series of “collisions” that brought him and Valley House together. “I felt I was ready for a well-established gallery at that time,” he says. It is evident that Michael places high value on his relationship with Valley House, which has the distinction of being the oldest contemporary art gallery in Dallas.
I’ve long wondered how artists let go of work that is so close to them, such an intense part of them. Michael has an surprising perspective on letting go. While he finds some finished work more valuable to him because it was pivotal in his development or it just seems better, he actually prefers to let the work go when it’s finished. “Have you ever created a piece you just couldn’t let go?” I ask. “Never,” he says. “Once a piece is complete it’s served its purpose for me and I want to let it go.” He has art in his home, but it’s the work of friends and teachers – not his work.
I am interested that Michael is both an accomplished sculptor and also produces drawings and paintings. He says that his production is probably 50/50. “But I’ve probably logged more sculpture hours overall because sculpture takes longer,” he clarifies. In all the media he works in, he is repeatedly attracted to certain motifs – the isolated head or the figure in ambiguous space. Representational figure work doesn’t interest him. Instead, he’s taken by discovering the human gesture in chance or accidental compositions. “This allows me to open up, both in terms of imagery and expression as well as vocabulary,” he explains.
The desire to lose the intentional in his work has driven him to interesting and unique approaches. He did a series of drawings by inserting his pencil into an industrial drill, for instance. It wasn’t long, however, before his years and years of drawing practice took over and he could control the drill – which then required a new approach to losing control.
Michael’s current output of work can be described roughly in three categories.
He creates plaster figures, colored plaster Headscapes, and beautiful dreamy drawings and paintings.
Michael’s process for the plaster figures he’s currently creating starts with rubber molds he’s made of heavily textured craggy tree bark. While that hardly seems a likely place to begin to create his graceful figures, nevertheless that’s the starting point. After using the molds to create plaster positives, he uses what he describes as “acts of violence” to shatter the plaster into broken shards by smashing them on the concrete floor. It is from these random pieces that he begins to see a shoulder, a nipple, or the curve of a back. From that starting point he builds the figures – adding here, subtracting there until graceful people emerge. A series of approximately four-foot figures have found life this way in his Laurel series.
His other sculpture series is the Headscapes. The finished pieces in this series are busts; some life-sized and some a monumental six feet tall. They are made of plaster, but they actually appear to be a natural substance mined from the earth. The process Michael developed to produce these heads is a fascinating combination of both additive and subtractive sculpture techniques.
Starting with little more than an armature and plastic pans of small chunks of colored plaster he’s made, he begins to fashion a stylized bust from plaster. His process is to build with wet plaster and pre-formed chunks in an earthy ochre, coral, white and gray palette. As he adds plaster, he alternately subtracts it using a rasp, a drill, and other industrial tools. Over time, the bust begins to take on a wonderful texture and surface quality that’s not unlike mined rock from the earth.
This series is bathed in a thick coat of sealant as a final step. The finish is high gloss and smooth as glass – like polished marble. Michael is very particular about how his sculpture should be viewed despite the fact that he finishes his work all the way around. The Headscape series is meant to be come upon straight on; that’s how he created them to be seen.
In tandem with his sculpture, Michael produces lyrical figurative drawings and paintings. Most are monochromatic, but some have a desaturated palette of blue -grays, pinks and corals. When I ask why those colors dominate, he says matter-of-factly, “When I decided to add color, those were the colors I was comfortable with.”
Michael is currently employing string dipped in ink to begin abstract works in which he finds figures. He puts the drawing on the floor and stands over it moving and swaying as he lays the ink-dipped string on the paper. His body gestures produce the patterns that eventually release the figure. The process robs him of conscious control and creates an atmosphere where his unconscious mind can find an image.
When the inked string drawing is ready, Michael carefully crafts the figurative image he’s found with graphite or paint. “When a piece is done,” he says, “it seems familiar but I still don’t know completely who and why the imagery is what it is.”
Universe willing, Michael O’Keefe will be creating artwork for the next 50 years. His unique struggle to lose control and find his subjects unconsciously will undoubtedly continue to morph into new avenues of approach. He will influence dozens of young artists to find their own way to approach making art – like he is finding his. And that brick wall? Let’s hope he never even sees it.