An Interview with Keith Daly
by Devon McKnight
He's 46 or 25. Maybe 32. He's from France and Germany, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles, New York (upstate and Manhattan), and maybe Florida on some weekends. He's an artist that fell into his art, and it would have happened there if it didn't happen here. He's a sculptor, no... a painter... that installs space; no, that puts paintings in a room and they tell us a fiction….a biographical fiction...about a place..and a man; a ghost?
About a falling-apart and a dead town and a legend that we just want to get close to somehow. He forages and gathers… Keith is one that doesn’t make sense. He mixes and chops his words and sentences. But you go with it. Because it’s beautiful. And it’s curious. And you want to find the dots and you want to connect them, but at every turn you’re disconnected and attached to a new storyline that distracts you from those previous dots you were just connecting. But you go with it, because it’s beautiful and it’s new and it’s curious...and you want to figure it out.
Keith has the space that he creates within, the empty rooms he sets-up. And then Keith has a way of entering those everyday spaces, the spaces we all exist within. This is from his series waving at planes:
As a graduate student at San Jose State University, Keith comes equipped with a studio space. A narrow space that he uses as a office, storage unit, and think tank. Here you can see the beginnings, middles or nothings of Keith’s future plans and present decisions. I think, because of the years he’s lived and his current mode of having been an independent adult for a while, he has all of his findings or materials neatly piled in categories. Tall 1x1’s grouped over here, found discarded paintings lined up over there, small blown glass jars lining the wall that separates his space from the considerably less filled space next to him and it’s like one long run-on sentence. Even in their organized states, these objects speak to each other, call out from across the room. Wood pieces lock eyes, similar blues whistle for attention, other people’s unfinished attempts at portraits or still lifes are bold sentence starters tucked close to tattered fabrics or the stump of a ceramic glaze tester.
Everything is significant. Everything is placed either specifically intentional or intentional without specificity. There is no beginning and no end apart from entering or exiting the space, thus pushing your presence. The audience is the reader and it is hard to come into this studio and not want to read every line before leaving.
One evening I visited Keith at his studio. The space was lit by a lamp, maybe two, and as we let one conversation blend quickly into the next in our usual black hole of thought sharing, I began taking clumsy photos of Keith’s clusters. Each photo is a cropping of the larger organism that is his space. It’s as if I was singling out intimate conversations in a crowded European bar at 1am.
KOD: I finally gave that owl painting [pictured above in my studio] to Rebecca Kohn at MLK University Library. She loves owls. I added blue to the painting, so that it would also carry some reference to you (since it was you who gave me that painting). Incidentally, the University library just purchased all four of my artbooks (“herb.s”, “Of Museum and Gallery Benches”, “A Case of Display”, “Old Beginnings New Beginnings”) for their Special Collections.
Ideally my studio will be empty in a few weeks so I can enjoy sitting in an empty space! Ah, the blank canvas! But looking back at your pictures of the studio and seeing them just after the picture of my ongoing work waving at planes (or at other things), I see a huge contrast: the crowded studio with what looks like some granny’s collection of knick knacks, and the simple action of waving at a tiny dot in the sky (a vapor trail?) from a deserted beach. Incidentally, since my work often includes words, text, either in a longer written or book form or just short phrases or word puns, I have a version of “waving at planes”, which is, fittingly, from the perspective of standing on a beach with (no) gun in my hand (hello Albert Camus / The Cure). It’s called “waving at waves”. Here it is, never seen before this interview!
The waves waved back. In those previous sentences one might experience a digression from waving, planes, beaches to Camus. All condensed. You said it well, it can be hard to follow my thoughts, but that’s the point, thoughts, or mind, as a challenge -- if one tries to follow it can actually be fun. To whom does Camus wave? I went to college with his grandson, Antoine, we both lived in the south of France at the same time. A wonderful poet. I’m honored that you pay attention to my thought process. I think you got it nailed down pretty well.
Going back to the pictures of studio clutter - the calculated displays and associations of works. They have this outsider artist feeling, you know? the crazy hoarder…? and then “Waving at planes”: it’s pared down to the minimum: all you need is a plane in the sky, and an arm to wave. Done. Hard to wave if you’re just a torso. Guess you could grin really hard.
The studio is a theme, a work in itself. Nothing new here since Bruce Nauman bouncing his balls or Daniel Buren. For my thesis I’m thinking of inviting each member of my community to a one-on-one meeting in my studio. The meeting would be the work. A bit like how when you and I did “An evening with”: the gathering and conversation among artists and art historians was an artwork in itself, not pointing to something else.
DM: Although the studio as work is nothing new, I don’t see it much talked about presently. Unless I’m missing a huge part of contemporary art. I mean studio visits, such as this one, are super hip. But you’re not really “creating” in the studio or making traditionally. I reckon that’s often the way of the conceptual artist, BUT what I see is a blend for you. You are as much a maker as you are a thinker. Even in the way you make writings. The way you arrange items or put down marks and collaborate with a found painting or arrange a discussion about a dead artist, it all is done with the same style, clumsy but thoughtful and smart. And I think that points to how creative thought is all connected and we can see it pretty clearly in you and your life. AND that brings it back to Bruce Nauman and the conceptual artists like Allan Kaprow, Art as Life, or Acconci or even back to Duchamp...they embodied their art. Their life was the art. They were activists in a sense. Every move challenged common thought, required us as audience to rethink our place, our actions, our everydayness. It was disruption.
So when I look at you, I think “this is a model. Look at how he blends sculpture, space, painting, object, photography, video, performance, concept...life!” I am reminded of my favorite artists that taught me how to think. Yoko Ono, giving us instructions on how to experience life, showing us what vulnerability feels like. Your work though, has always, always, made me smile. I smile at the “trickery”, the smarts of it, the curiosity that is laid in front of us that is completely infectious. For me, as a viewer, you bring life into your audience. You activate us, move us around, drive us crazy in a funny way, and leave us confused. And THAT is so fucking refreshing.
KOD: I’m so glad you see, said all this. The art world, as far as I (eye) can see, to paraphrase Lawrence Weiner, in the Bay Area at least, seems contrived and claustrophobic. I think it lacks balls, with its overwhelming emphasis on practices such as either formulaic formalism, or what has become the obligatory social practice / activist work. It’s very hard to come up with anything new and meaningful. These are often just more forms of superficial entertainment.
My work tends to critique things when they become a trend. Sometimes the strategy or position of not-producing, not-making, not-proposing, not-applying is the only valid course (I’m thinking here of Jan Verwoert’s discussion around the notions of Exhaustion and Exuberance). Most of my applications, as of late, have been about the process of application itself and its idiosyncrasies, which is a very tricky and risky game. The pitfall is invisibility, which, in the (visual) art world, means death. So it’s an existential quandary that comes to the surface. We thought existentialism had been evacuated from art (and literature) after the 70’s or 80’s. But it returns as the real, not as the represented. It returns as the artist’s angst and constant need for validation.
Studio visits, as you note, are indeed hip (but your visit was much more than that) because they provide entertainment. It’s kind of the farmer’s market, the meet-the-producer for the art world. In light of our culture’s constant need for the “real”, studio visits, open studios, social practice, engaged art, activist art tend to fill that need. Yet they are just another representation, another script. Ditto with residencies. There’s no longer a place to hide, no mystery, no depth. Everything has to be spelled out, fit neatly into a category or another. Hence the trend of long, overly verbal museum labels. Some current works are described as conceptual because of the amount of verbiage that accompanies them. But this verbiage, in fact, is a response to an appetite for reification and our inability to be with something we do not understand. The growing interest for the “outsider artist” is a response to a demand for art that is authentic in a world where the only authentic is quite intangible. I’m actually working with an “outsider” for my thesis show. He’s not as outsider as he seems to be. Francesco Bonami said, “there is no outside”. Maybe that’s how we should navigate the artworld. The process -- or at least the feeling -- of ostracism that pervades the Bay Area art scene is pretty real.
Brian Taylor recently told a new MFA student, “don’t let the MFA program tame you” - when I look at Andy Warhol’s piss paintings, or the things that Sigmar Polke, Christoph Schlingensief or Martin Kippenberger did, I think, “oh yes, Brian is right, but good luck”. Very few people today can sustain that level of artistic fuck-you and non-conformism.
OK, nuff said. I guess this was the part where I become negative and critical. I hope you’re still smiling :) I’m really just grateful to (still) be alive (like or unlike, rather, On Kawara). But if I were dead, maybe I’d be grateful to be dead. Who the f. knows.
DM: “there is no outside”, how could the art world ever exist like that? For the art world to be the art world, there must be the art world and then everything outside of that. And to me, and I think you too, that’s art’s/artist’s greatest downfall. Social practice is an “art thing” trying to touch the “other” world. And it is so clear, that desire for the outsider..the authentic...especially in the bay. Look at all the newcomers from the .com world wanting to be near the culture of SF and Oakland, but can’t see that they’re destroying it because ….people don’t want to be around things they do not understand, so they modify.
How do you erase the boundaries? Boundaries that so mimic our boundaried countries that are kicking people out and keeping people out and for why? I reckon it is only appropriate that the art system mimic the systems it exists within.
what have we become?
Where is all the negative, critical work? I also wonder, if this speaks to why your work is often seen as and has been criticized as a joke, like you’re tricking the audience? Questioning what is, often has this immature or annoyance factor. People want known beauty. To probe is to annoy.
You know I also really enjoy the empathy aspect of your work. You’re asking us to ride this wave with you and it’s not a soft clearwater wave, it’s Atlantic ocean style, murky green with possible jellyfish.
KOD: Yes, empathy is good. It’s what makes this whole thing worthwhile and workable. Once for a scholarship application I had to answer the question, “how do you feel your art will make a difference in the world?” I said “I am not sure. But right now, I want to firmly hold your face and squeeze it so that your lips are pushed up against one another into a huge pout and the only sound you can make is a surprised moan.” I was also wondering how to answer your question “what have we become?” -- I was going to say “an egg” but now I think jellyfish is better! And I’m glad you mention the Atlantic -- I haven’t been in it in a while.
DM: as a young girl, I was obsessed with manatees. The cow of the sea.
KOD: Before I forget, in the very beginning of this interview, you mentioned a “ghost”. When I hear of ghosts in the context of art, and especially painting, I often think of that Andrew Wyeth painting, called like that. Wyeth painted his image as reflected to him by a very dusty mirror. I also get Andrew (Wyeth) confused with Andy (Warholes) for obvious reasons.
DM: Now that you mention it, all of his paintings have this ghost-y feeling. Like they’re all so still or quiet and… empty. Warhol too...especially the portraits and especially now.
KOD: Maybe that’s why you included the picture of that painting with the sort of blue ectoplasm? [above] Anyway, when you say “biographical fiction”, I think of the story and artwork of Vishnu “JJ” Lieberman.
DM: Yea JJ, but also herb.s. and even, a little, After Asher. A lot of your work has this “fake” realness to it. Like the jokes that are funnier because of the large amount of truth they hold and how they expose us but it’s done with humor so it feels good and it feels shared. Louis C.K. is great at this. Your installations, paintings, and even photographs seem like stories to me, often one that we just fell into. But really, I wonder if we are just seeing your ponderings; your wonderings. You know?
KOD: My wander(w)ings? You’re right: not just JJ. Things tie into other stories. The borders are not immutable. Sometimes they blend seamlessly. At other times they are more rough, de-skilled (I dare say) juxtapositions. As if art brut, arte povera, COBRA (or supports-surfaces?) came back and took over the whole thing and said, “hey, why so clean??” After Asher was like that: some very formalist (and whacky) work tied into a dialogic and conceptual piece on an artist who was not very much interested in the production of objects. Speaking of connections between stories, the title of this here interview “What is a Keith Daly?” reminds me of Ray Johnson’s amazing text, “What is a Moticos?” Am I a Moticos? Hmm...
KOD (or KPD): Yes, thanks for including that -- that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Ray Jay sure knew how to draw a rabbit. And I love trains! Jarmusch trains, preferably. “Mystery Train.”
DM: You could have written that. It reminds me of Dr. Seuss books, merging the everyday with the nonsense. Just the right amount of nonsense to make you question life and what is real and why not?
Look out for Keith's Thesis show at the end of April (25-29) at San Jose State University as well as San Jose State's group MFA show at Pro Arts in Oakland the first week of September.
Click here: k o d