Wyeth had Helga. Warhol had Edie. Man Ray had Kiki. Godard had Anna. Ann Demeulemeester has Patti and Collier Schorr has Jens. There is nothing quite like the perfect muse and it’s captivating to think of the power and presence a person must possess to be able to inspire some of the most gifted artists in history. It’s complex, this relationship between artist and muse. It is at once evocative and revealing, exposing the soul of the artist in such a way that an artwork’s emotional connection is almost palpable. Danny Keith’s premiere exhibition at Wentrup Gallery, Black Feathers and Sequins, exemplifies this relational exegesis with a collection of serial portraits featuring a single male figure against a watery black backdrop. The hanging is sparse but sophisticated and shows mature development for the artist on his European debut.
Keith’s subject is sensual and seductive without the overbearing qualities of aggressive sexuality. We are left with hints of skin, delicate embellishment, and a sultry gaze. Affection for his model is so apparent it soaks the surfaces of his paintings and provokes an emotional response deep within my loins. I cannot stop myself from thinking how much I want to be loved in that way, too. A magical act happens when an artist renders his lover with such visceral passion and unyielding attention to detail: the resulting work is a more perfect union between the two individuals. The actions of both parties fuse to become one—inseparable from each other as a single, tangible object. These are the paintings on display here.
The technical prowess of this work is just as enchanting as the model’s gaze. Keith has a deft hand and a keen eye that shines brightly in each execution. It is refreshing to see such skilled and patient craftsmanship in a world flooded with too many haphazard squiggles and hip, lazy doodles. Keith captures his subject in the most precise light: reminiscent of the old masters, but with a slight irreverent flair. In certain images the model is adorned with a feathered headdress-turned-necklace and others a single-toned sequined scarf. The lone ornament subtly probes coded cultural signifiers of sexuality and decoration while maintaining a demure quality that is not overly campy. On each work, the paint begins to fade at the edges of the picture revealing the grain of the panel below. This simple gesture gently shakes me from the reverie of his beautiful boy long enough to remind myself that I am looking at a painting, not an actual person.
Danny Keith, Black Feathers No. 1, 2012, oil on panel, 101 x 76 cm; Courtesy of the artist, Wentrup Gallery, and Ratio 3, San Francisco.
As mentioned previously, this showing marks a mature progression for Keith. Earlier works featured picturesque landscapes with Le déjeuner sur l'herbe-style tableaus of flannel-clad men engaging in communal activities like fishing, camping, and drinking beer. Previous lovers would surface in environmental-type portraits, but the iterations on view at Wentrup exhibit a trained progression in both vision and skill. Keith’s approach has become more refined, but also bolder and more confident as his practice develops. It speaks volumes when an artist like Keith is able to define himself outside of the de rigueur stylings of the day—much like Manet in his prime.
(Image on top: Danny Keith, Black feathers No. 2, 2012, oil on panel, 61 x 51 cm; Courtesy of the artist, Wentrup Gallery, and Ratio 3, San Francisco.)