Several hundred people turned out at the Santa Monica Museum of Art on Friday night for the opening of "The Miracle Half-Mile: Ten Thousand Paintings by Stephen Keene."
Most spent the first few minutes open-mouthed, dazzled by the floor-to-ceiling display of acrylic paintings and perhaps wondering, just a little, about the sanity of the man responsible. That would be 43-year-old Keene, a soft-spoken, baby-faced New Yorker, who spent most of the night in a closed corral of easels, painting the same image on six plywood canvases at a time, in the one-man assembly-line fashion that has become his trademark, along with the bargain-basement prices he charges. "It's a game for me," said Keene, during a break earlier in the day.
(During the opening, he did little talking, deflecting the questions of several dejected admirers with, "I don't really talk.")
"It's about the performance: How I can make the best picture in the least amount of time?" said Keene. "I have no emotional attachment to what I'm painting. The images are just raw material for creating this cavern of color."
Keene, who studied art at Yale and was working in restaurants while pursuing a modest painting career, decided nine years ago to abandon the one-canvas-at-a-time tradition. The show's name is a play on geography (the museum-rich stretch of Wilshire Boulevard) and the distance his paintings would cover if laid side by side.
To prepare for this installation, he began making paintings four months ago, in a Brooklyn warehouse, sometimes churning out more than 100 in a day. He will continue painting in the museum through Jan. 28. Most of the images are culled from catalogs from Los Angeles-area art museums, including the Norton Simon, the Getty, the Armand Hammer and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Fragonards" hang next to "Jackson Pollocks" and "Dosso Dossis." Other images come from Keene's record album collection, ranging from Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" to Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction."
"I never make anything up or paint from life," explained Keene. Especially popular were the $5 paintings of individual presidents. (Paintings cost between $3 and $25, depending on size.) For these, Keene consulted an American history book.
"I'm trying to get everybody," said Ken Brecher, 55, director of the Sundance Institute. He was one of the first guests to rummage through a mountain of bags filled with paintings in the center of the main gallery. Soon others followed, looking for the choice Nixon or JFK (Lincolns, it was rumored, were in especially short supply). Brecher ended up with 38 presidents. (Keene painted up to only Gerald Ford, the 38th president, because that's where his history book ended.)
Nine-year-old Zoe Kuprenas worked the room with three other 9-year-olds with whom she takes private art lessons. "He [Keene] has a definite style of painting," she offered. "It's really cool. It's not like he's very delicate."
Each of the girls had $25 to spend as she wished. Kuprenas' plan was to buy "one for myself, one for family members and one for a homeless shelter, so people who don't have homes can see art." She ended up buying five paintings. "I just got a lot of little ones," she said.
Not everyone was enthusiastic about what they were seeing. "On its own, it's just schlock, and it doesn't hold up," said a middle-aged man who identified himself as an "art critic and painter." "But all together, it's fabulous."
The artist takes the criticism in stride. "I think people would be impressed by the ambition," he said. "Some things, I think are really fantastic, some things [aren't]."
Hannah Taylor, 6, called the paintings "amazing, because there are so many" but proclaimed the refreshments, specifically the Krispy Kreme doughnuts, superior.
Keene, who has done similar but smaller installations such as this in the past, estimates that if all his paintings sell--and they always do--he and the museum will split about $85,000. Not a bad take for a guy who started selling his paintings "real cheap" at bars and rock shows "so I didn't have to take them home."