John Keane: Life During Wartime

Publication: The Times


John Keane: Life During Wartime



Until 23 September


There is a long and valuable tradition linking the artist with war – one thinks of the motifs of the Parthenon friezes, the shocking scenes portrayed by Goya, and the more stylised imagery of Uccello.

John Keane was appointed by the Imperial War Museum in 1991 as its official war artist covering the Gulf War in 1990-91. As his career has progressed Keane has covered the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, the Rwandan genocide and the aftermath of the war in Angola. The earlier part of Keane’s career took him to the Falklands and Northern Ireland.

Keane has not provocatively courted controversary but neither has he shied away from the terrible truths and horrors to which his art, like the best war reporting, bears witness.

Here this selection of work (it’s neither a retrospective nor a proper survey) covers some of his themes from the first Gulf War onwards, ending with the oil on linen Putin Variations II (2014).  Most of Keane’s more recent work starts out as a digital image, which is then transferred to canvas or linen, and worked further. Putin Variations II shows the Russian president’s face obscured by pixilation. There are various, complex layers of meaning here but foremost is the notion of surveillance and anonymity – an oblique, if pointed, reference to Putin’s numerous ‘untraceable’ crimes and interventions.

Keane rarely depicts violence and atrocity directly; his approach is tangential and the paintings often conceal as much as they reveal. A case in point is Jar Head from 2008 (the punning title comes from the informal term for a marine). But there’s a sinister under-current to the work. Painted in a characteristically blurred manner, the painting seems to show a misshapen mass of mutilated tissue atop shoulders, the implication being that the ‘head’ could only be contained in a jar, like red jam.

Using a similar approach, Bound shows an empty orange boilersuit, now eerily familiar as the ‘uniform’ of prisoners held by the US in Guantanamo Bay. By focussing on a universal image, rather than a specific prisoner, Keane extends his meaning and the relevance of the work.

These are layered and textured works, built up using paint, textiles and other materials, such as gold leaf (a fact not readily apparent in reproduction) – and it is their tactility and physicality that lends them such depth and layers of meaning.

Keane is at the top of his game. A versatile, compassionate artist whose gaze penetrates some of the murkiest parts of the human condition, without fear or favour.

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