The aseptic white cube is a canny fit for Matt Keegan’s newest body of work. Mining an archive of educational tools used in the instruction of language, for his fourth solo exhibition at Altman-Siegel Gallery Keegan has created a series of sculptures, photographs and videos designed to return the viewer to a juvenile frame of mind. Remember the feeling of fiddling with an array of uncomplicated children’s toys in a dentist’s waiting room, queasily anticipating the hygienist calling your name? The institutional whitewash, the fluorescent lighting play to this feeling of being held, observed, in uncomfortable, dumb limbo, as you try to work out the meanings of inscrutable shapes (Keegan’s ‘Cutouts’, a series begun in 2014, are undeniably Rorschachian), or struggle to decipher the systems that underlie a series of didactic compositions (the large, wall-mounted ‘Have You Seen My Language?’, 2016/19, comprises 50 C-prints matching mass-produced ESL [English as a Second Language] flashcards to objects in the artist’s home). The feeling is intensified by the presence of an iterative sculpture, Puppy Puzzle (2019), in which a different piece of an enlarged puzzle is absent in each of three versions. Keegan sourced the original puzzle depicted on the flashcard for the word ‘puzzle’ from the set used in ‘Have You Seen My Language?’ but, rather than deploy it in the photographic series, gave it blown-up, embodied form.
The gesture here – the scaled, perfect enlargement – has been a feature of Keegan’s practice for a number of years and is the dominant formal conceit behind the ‘Cutouts’: a group of symmetrical, wall-mounted, powder-coated steel forms based on original hand-cut paper templates. These pieces do not feel incongruent within the context of Keegan’s tongue-in-cheek pedagogical playhouse; they bear a resemblance to kindergarten-classroom paper snowflakes. Though their relationship to language and words is tenuous, they are nonetheless elegant, beautiful objects. A concurrent exhibition at Potts, Los Angeles, pairs Keegan’s ‘Cutouts (C is for Corita)’ (2018), a slew of silkscreened paper cutouts, with Corita Kent’s 'International Signal Code Alphabet' (1968), an A–Z, 26-serigraph series in which she whimsically reconstrued the International Code of Signals. There, in affective dialogue with Kent’s works, Keegan’s intimately scaled cutouts assume a more nuanced, meaningful relationship to their referents.
Since 2010, Keegan has referred to a deck of amateur flashcards made by his mother, an ESL teacher; each 1:08-minute long video responds to one of these cards. Cobbled together from 1990s-era mass-market print media, his mother’s cards reflected the economic – and by extension aesthetic – values of the Clinton years (hammering home the association: Keegan’s inclusion of a plaster cast of a Bill Clinton caricature mask). The videos – all 2019 – are: Ready for Work, a Teutonic male model dressing for Wall Street; Fellow Travelers, a group of New York City subway riders assigned typological epithets (‘Chinatown Homies’, ‘Indian Hipsters’, ‘Do-Good Bluebloods’, etc.); 2 Gallons of Milk, two fridge-cold gallons of milk beading with sweat; and College Graduate, in which a young Latina speaks in sub-titled Spanish to her abuela at a party thrown in honour of her having ‘worked her ass on’. (The English language idiomatic slippage cues the granddaughter’s ‘haha’ correction ‘No, it’s work your ass off, abuela.’) The videos, despite their identical length, do not totally cohere as a group. Then again, close examination of ‘Have You Seen My Language?’ yields similar inconsistencies: there is no one system at work in the placement of the ESL flashcards – sometimes the relationship is 1:1 (a card of a toilet affixed to a toilet); sometimes formal (a card of a configuration of blocks held before a similarly shaped city skyline); sometimes associative (a card of a pair of glasses placed on a bedside table). Whether this dissonance is intentionally antic is unclear; Keegan walks a fine line between nostalgic irreverence and wry critique of a system designed to educate, though vulnerable to satire.
Matt Keegan, ‘Use Your Words’ was on view at Altman Siegel, San Francisco, from 28 February until 20 April 2019.
Main image: Matt Keegan, 2 Gallons of Milk, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco
First published in Issue 204