Keemo — “Check Your Guns At the Door”
BY :: LIAM IN THE UPTOWN BUSINESS DISTRICT
PHOTOGRAPHY :: DAVE JOHNSON
James Magee is an artist with several alter-egos. Annabel Livermore, the librarian and painter from Newaygo County, is the most famous. He sculpts under his personal name, James Magee. In Magee’s imagination lives a fellow named Horace Mayﬁeld, an untrained artist who makes assemblages out of found objects and recovered Salvation Army paintings. Thus, it is a fair question to ask Keemo who else creates art in his studio. Keemo answered simply, “It is just me. One man, one pseudonym, many colors.” Keemo creates almost 400 works of art a year, most of which sell, so one is compelled to wonder if there’s a school of Keemo. Andy Warhol ran a factory staffed by his superstars to assist in the creation of silk screens and films.
With Keemo, there’s no question that he works mostly alone. Keemo has boundless energy, demonstrated by the total gutting of his studio following his Thursday night opening. Completing his fourth decade, the painter and sculptor is riding a growth spurt that began in 2009, which raises an important question. What will Keemo accomplish in his next three decades? Although Keemo’s show, “Check Your Guns At the Door” was billed as a pop up show, it is more a pop up guidebook to the next three decades of his artistic career.
Keemo has written a book, We Are All Here and That Is Just How It Is, providing stories for works composed between 2008 to 2010. Each of the fifty paintings has a companion typewritten story. Keemo talked about his method for incorporating text into his paintings. “I have a 1951 Royal Speed King. I often use it in pieces, where I’ll type onto the paper and then add some paint. For these pieces, I never pre-write the words. I just type it up directly on the painting, mistakes and all and just see what comes out.” The titles from the show read as a series of Zen Koans. All Things Grow From The Hole Where My Heart Was. With Each Breath Know The Balance Is Complete. I Have Learned to Stop Counting My Days Before I Have Counted Them All.
Keemo promised to present a painting incorporating a love poem, and the verse became an audience favorite Thursday night. It could be said Keemo arrived Thursday night with a love story, bringing his wife, Aimee, his high school sweetheart from Jenison High school to the opening. His daughter, Alisha, brought a friend, and the two sported dresses of different patterns, made from a fabric dotted with a matching animal icon. The artist greeted endless friends and well-wishers who arrived to view his work and engage him in conversation. Yet, he had time to meet personally with his collectors in Richard App’s office to review commissions.
Keemo had no idea Thursday night as his family left Richard App Gallery at twilight that his collection would become topical in the conversation to end massacres forever. He had painted on a variety of gun targets easily purchased from online sources and shipped to Keemo’s studio. With names such as split second, head shot, critical impact zone and anatomy targets, James Eagan Holmes, the highly educated shootist, might have trained his deadly aim on variations of these firing range targets. Keemo appropriated these targets and turned them to humane, ironic purposes. He has left the coding visible when painting on the targets. A shot to K5 D2, on the abdomen below the heart, could cause deadly internal bleeding. A shot to K2 D4, the left elbow, could disable a less berserk gunman and prompt a surrender. Great artists respond to mere wrinkles in our cultural fabric, a kind of telepathy with paint, and what Keemo paints we must take seriously from now onward. Ignore at humanity’s own risk. Treat them with the seriousness accorded an all-points bulletin.
The show contained affordable art and advanced works, such as “There Is This World And Then There Is Us”. Painted on a two headed target designed to charge up the firing range, Keemo’s paint transformed this into a face card from an old-fashioned deck. Keemo described his painting in an email correspondence. “It … is a portrait of love and relationships. I could go more into all the identifiers, such as the heart spilling over, the arm wrapped around, the ears listening to each other, … but I think you probably get the idea. Even though it was born from some place personal, aren’t they all, I do think that it extends beyond my own relationship and translates into others as well.”
Keemo makes subtle quotes of visual material. Always be on the look for a David Lynch angle. Thursday night’s show always had FBI Special Agent Dale Bartholomew Cooper not far from the surface. When a Keemo character appears wearing a twin peaked cap, open a copy of Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and compare against the ears. Keemo also painted a few items from nature, including a bear entitled, The Manifestation of Ideas. For Keemo, the bear is “a nod to the birth, storage and expression of ideas. Particularly, to the area deep inside where ideas are stored for a long time and ruminate and then eventually show themselves in some form, at least for me.” When you see Keemo’s bear, reference a picture of the bear on the California flag. When you see a white faced character wearing a military hat, imagine Marilyn Manson and the Golden Age of Grotesque.
Rhonda Solomon responded strongly to Keemo’s work. Solomon practices as an interior designer and owns Canary Home Studio, a design studio and textiles library connected to the East Hills Business District in Grand Rapids. She pointed out the cubist nature of Keemo’s work, and his bold use of original colors. To add to Solomon’s observation, Keemo’s handling of the human face pushes facial signifiers to the edge of easy recognition, and in our viewing, that extra moment evokes the subconscious. The approach quotes the paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who composed faces of fruits, vegetables and fish.
Richard App Gallery has two chambers that work well for weddings, lectures and networking mixers. During the Keemo exhibition, his east gallery hosted a separate networking event for the Uptown Business District, led by Mark C. Lewis of Neighborhood Ventures. The community furnished a splendid table. Blue Door Antiques offered three extravagant Bloody Mary cocktails, the York Harbor with lobster and wasabi, the Wake Up Crabby with Shrimp and Crab, and a traditional Bootlegger. The owner of Blue Door Antiques, Joel Carrier, added a historical character by mixing them with award winning Vodka Monopolowa, a modestly priced vodka made from an old world recipe, a distillation that was once the monopoly vodka of Communist Poland. Amy Ruis of Art of the Table, where she hosts winemakers and brewmasters weekly, provided a selection of fine wines and flavored ice teas. Karen and Ken Bryan of Making Thyme Kitchen brought hummus and unusual dipping items, including thick slices of red cabbage. The table was rounded out with stacks of Solace Magazine and copies of the Local First directory, which vanished before the selection of Brewery Vivant microbrews on ice depleted. Representing the Uptown Business District as a health destination, Kat McKinney of the Yoga Studio, Rachel Zylstra of Hop Scotch Children’s Store and Dr. Doug DeVries and Kristin Swann of Eastown Chiropractic and Acupuncture answered many questions on new approaches to wellness.
We checked our guns at the door of Richard App Gallery, and inside the miracle of art unfolded. Two artists, Victoria Mullen and David R. Mullen arrived to tour the gallery. Although the pair are no longer married, they share time together as friends. Next week, Victoria will attend David’s wedding. Erin Haehnel reclined on a chaise lounge, and with Rosemary Ellis‘ bubble paintings in the background, her friend Marjorie Yost captured the beautiful moment on film. The artist Anthony Carpenter held court among Keemo’s paintings, and one of his models, Amy Armstrong, mingled with her friends and made new ones. Heidi Stukkie, journalist and creative with Zia Creative, had a chance to catch up with art collector Eddie Tadlock, subject of a profile she wrote for Stellafly Social Media. Likewise, social media strategist Laura Bergells visited to take a quick turn through the beautiful pictures and missed Michele Sellers, another subject of a Stellafly profile authored by Bergells. In these ways and uncounted others, inside the Richard App Gallery, the miracle of art, peace and community unfolded.