John Keane

The painterly narratives in John Keane’s recent show, “Graham Greene and the Jungle of Human Dilemma,” evolved out of a trip he took to Mexico in January and February of 1995. While he was staying in Mexico City, Keane came across a copy of Greene’s 1938 book The Lawless Road, a searing indictment of the Mexican government’s persecution of Catholics. The resulting paintings conflate Keane’s memories of his own experiences in Mexico with tableaux suggested by Greene’s writings and photographs.

Keane achieved notoriety with his 1991–92 series of Gulf War paintings, the most memorable of which portrayed Mickey Mouse in the midst of a ravaged Kuwaiti landscape. In these newer works, he’s as irreverent as ever, creating images that are as comical as they are unsettling. Monkeys with erect penises prowl in the shadows of the Mayan rainforest while men are lynched and guerrillas type away on laptop computers, publishing manifestos over the Internet. Fat Americans stand around, seemingly oblivious to the conflicts surrounding them. All of these images are bright and engaging, skirting the edges of banality with the aid of their quirky humor.

The paintings seem to claim Greene as a kindred spirit, but a comparison of the two bodies of work reveals their radical differences. Keane may be suggesting that an artist’s place is on the frontlines of civilization. But is that where he is really positioning himself? His paintings eschew the nightmarish immediacy of the depictions of wartime atrocities in Greene’s work, or in work by artists like Goya or Picasso. Rather, his pictures, though certainly clever, have a certain smug quality.

Keane seems to be concerned with painting “well”—making imaginative use of color and materials and paying careful attention to things like composition and brushwork. But the work’s relentlessly bright coloration and breezy captions are unnerving considering the tragic struggles to which it alludes. While his paintings raise interesting questions about what some readers might interpret as a negative aspect of some of Greene’s writing—the use of third-world settings as an exotic backdrop for the existential crises of “civilized” white men—they depart radically from Greene’s vision in that they are ultimately detached from the experience of human suffering they so carefully describe.

Justin Spring