For artist Keegan Monaghan, empathy needs no context
The painter’s latest exhibition, ‘Indicator,’ uses the close-up as a gateway to emotion and eerie viewpoints
“Sidewalk, grate, outlet, floor,” begins a statement from the James Fuentes Gallery, home to artist Keegan Monaghan’s latest exhibition, Indicator. “A subject so tightly framed that it becomes a silent enigma seen from the outside, a world built on the foundations of what we cannot see, or only what we can.”
Simply put, the perspectives Monaghan chooses to employ are generally close-quarters, mundane, and free of context. Its subject becomes a world unto itself, or involves action just beyond the confines of a painting. He gravitates toward the barred windows, the lampposts, the sun-dappled walls and streets. “I would like the paintings to place the viewer in an emotional point of view,” Monaghan reveals to Document. “I try to create an empathetic vision that involves the audience.”
This is the Evanston-born, Brooklyn-based artist’s third exhibition with James Fuentes, having previously exhibited at the Parker Gallery, the Whitney Biennial and Simone Subal. “I still use the close-up as a compositional and psychological device,” he says of his most recent work, “but the focus is more on atmosphere, light and pathos.” Ahead of the show’s much-anticipated opening on Wednesday, Monaghan sat down with Document to discuss everyday imagery, Elizabeth Murray, and her bizarre perspective.
Morgan Becker: This is your third exhibition at James Fuentes. How does this show differ conceptually from the other two? Have you found that exhibiting in the same gallery space reveals connections between your works that might not have been apparent otherwise?
Keegan Monaghan: I thought of this new work as a continuation of the last exhibition I had at the gallery. It was during the height of the pandemic – everything felt charged and unknowable, and I wanted the paintings to embody that feeling. While my first exhibition with the gallery featured narrative scenes involving figures, the work in the second exhibition consisted almost entirely of tightly cropped images that were framed to exclude context, so the action of the scene unfolded beyond the edge of the image. The close-up also became a means of avoiding overt figuration while simultaneously depicting the body. Instead of painting a person, I painted their shirt button. It also became the work’s functional metaphor: the idea of focusing on details, of looking at something closely until it gives way to abstraction.
These new paintings are preoccupied with similar concepts. I always use the close-up as a compositional and psychological device. Figuratively, the imagery still depicts the human body, but the focus is more on atmosphere, light, and pathos. Watching the other two shows, I see an attempt to generate a slower forming image – something with a softer resolution that takes longer to see and requires space and distance to become fully readable. Ultimately, it’s still heading towards abstraction, though I’m not sure what form that might take yet.
Morgan: You tend to have rich colors and dense, detailed texture. What role does this sort of liveliness play in your work?
Keegan: The image in my head has a specific emotionality or feeling, but the actual image is still blurry and obscure. I try to get it right and find the image, and the painting process becomes a series of corrections and edits. Painting is born from this process, like a sedimentation. Sometimes it takes up to a year of working on something, moving pieces of the composition over and over again until the surface finally looks something like shag carpet. I want all of these decisions and mistakes to be rooted in the psychology of the board. Color works the same way – it’s not one color, but several colors stacked on top of each other, optically blending together. It has to do with my desire to make a slow image that reveals itself in different stages, something that registers immediately from afar but dissolves as one approaches. Again, I see this as a sort of metaphor for the act of looking.
Morgan: Strange viewpoints are a recurring feature of your work. Are you saying it’s destabilizing? What kind of vibe do you hope it invokes in the viewer?
Keegan: I’m not sure I would use the word destabilizing. Rather, it is about creating a psychological perspective. I would like the paintings to place the viewer in an emotional point of view. I see the painting as a window and try to create an empathetic vision that involves the audience. Certain images are associated with a high level of anxiety, such as a bright red light or an overloaded power outlet. It can work as an overt metaphor. But it is also commonplace. For me, this is an interesting intersection.
Morgan: What types of scenes and objects do you look to when deciding what to paint? Are some of them purely imaginary?
“Instead of painting a person, I painted the button of his shirt. It also became the work’s functional metaphor: the idea of focusing on details, of looking at something closely until it gives way to abstraction.
Keegan: I tend to gravitate towards everyday imagery – the seemingly innocuous things around us. Most of my ideas come from walking around and looking at things in the world. Because I live in New York, the imagery often evolves around details of the city: a brick wall, markings on a sidewalk, shadows on the floor of my apartment. I draw these scenes from memory, and sometimes the imagery is entirely imaginary. I don’t work from photographs because I’m interested in mediating memory, and I like how I could get it wrong. These idiosyncrasies are revealing and can provide unexpected revelations. Lately I’ve been thinking about doing paintings in which what’s being depicted isn’t entirely clear. For example, a painting of an imaginary piece of machinery with an unknown function. I also paint en plein air and have an ongoing project of quick observational paintings and a single log sitting. I thought of these as existing between still life and abstraction.
Morgan: Your main medium seems to be painting, but I also really admire your ceramic work. Do these mediums seem to you to be distinct entities, or does one practice translate into the other?
Keegan: They are definitely related. For me, painting is very slow and elusive. I often feel on the verge of failure, and it’s an arduous process trying to get out of the hole I’ve created. I once heard Elizabeth Murray say something to that effect in an interview, and I’ve always been deeply connected to it. Solving one problem in the board opens a series of other problems. But at its core, it’s always about working and reworking until it feels right. Ceramic, on the other hand, seems much more immediate. The enameling process can sometimes seem similar to painting, but the result is very different and becomes entirely inert upon firing. What I love about the glazing process is the level of mystery involved. It may be due to a lack of experience, but I am always surprised at the result after taking it out of the oven. There is a transformation that happens overnight and it is rarely what was expected.
Morgan: What are your artistic influences?
Keegan: Elizabeth Murray, Pierre Bonnard, Jack Whitten, Robert Gober, Van Gogh, Monet, Susan Rothenberg, Thelonious Monk, Philip K. Dick. Too many to mention, really, but these are some of the artists I often think of in the studio.
Morgan: How do you find inspiration outside the studio?
Keegan: I like making music with people. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of free improvisation with friends. My practice in the studio is very solitary and music is a very satisfying way to work collaboratively with other people. For me, free improvisation can feel laid back and almost automatic. The intention is not necessarily to make a finished piece, but simply to experience the social dynamics of creating and reacting to sounds with other people.
by Keegan Monaghan Indicator will be on view from September 21 to October 22 at the James Fuentes Gallery.