Secret identity

I was among the last in my class to learn to read, and my spelling was atrocious. I liked pictures, so comics were a natural home as I made my transition to becoming a reader at around seven. My friend Ajit, who lived next door to me in Neasden, was an avid reader of Marvel Comics. Much of our play was superhero themed. Skinny nine year old Ajit, brandishing a ruler, would be Thor and Abu from across the road might be Spiderman, and as the youngest I always seemed to be allotted Iron Man.

I remember one Hulk comic frame where our hero rips up the surface of the street to reveal a science fiction underworld below. This image of breakthrough, and revealing what is hidden under the surface has always stayed with me. Hulk is by nature a breaker of barriers.

But for me the lasting legacy of those Marvel comics was the idea of the double identity. The Hulk had Dr Bruce Banner, Spiderman was Peter Parker, and Thor has had multiple alter egos, including surgeon Dr Donald Blake, labourer Sigurd Jarlson, Architect Eric Masterson, and more. While alter egos have a long pedigree, perhaps most famously The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde  by Robert Louis Stevenson and first published in 1886. Interesting that a high proportion of heroes’ alter egos have PhDs. My brother has a PhD (just sayin’) and studied doubles in literature. Through him my Marvel based notion of alter egos expanded to include doubles, which were present in  The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad and The Double by Dostoevsky for example. Once you get your ear in, doubles are everywhere. 

Rather inspired by seeing Jeff Keen Shoot The WRX I decided to start doing some home movies. Also I have been watching Inland Empire again by David Lynch, which always promotes weirdness. So here is my double identity piece called Janus. It’s a bit mad, but was fun and surprisingly fast to make. You can view it here, or click through to watch it bigger on YouTube. I was also interested in the creepy, and unflattering, effect you can get when not showing the entire face.


I have found myself drawn back three times to The Brighton Museum and Art Gallery to look at the SHOOT THE WRX retrospective of the work of Jeff Keen (1923-2012). I hadn’t been aware of his work, before this time, despite the fact that he had lived most of his working life in Brighton. The exhibition runs till 21st April 2013.

I’ve had to revise my opinion of it. The first two times I visited, I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the diversity of paintings, sculpture,  pen and ink drawings, collages, 8mm films, fabric and so on. Add two or three documentaries about his work and it was a lot to take in. My first impression was that the work didn’t seem serious somehow, but I was missing the point. Much of Keen’s work is about playfulness, and about instant drama. He talks in one interview about American popular culture, and the directness and power gained from someone just entering a frame with a gun.

Clips from the short films were enjoyable, and full of crazy action and movement. You Tube is a happy hunting ground if you want to watch some of Keen’s film work. Watch Marvo Movie here. He shot in 8mm and saw 16mm as a slippery slope towards 32mm and ‘real’ films, and conforming to the establishment.

In the Brighton exhibition is a split screen projection of Jeff Keen Diary Films 72-73. The screen is in four, with different films running in each quarter. Shot on 8mm film and edited in the camera, you are treated to a mishmash of images: Brighton street scenes, cartoon animations, home movies, arty shots such as sunlight falling on a net curtain, or of a washing line, rain falling on widows. Then images people in masks, matadors, film of Keen painting and drawing. Film of cartoon images from magazines, real action of Zombies emerging from rubbish dumps and so on. As you are watching four films at once, with films projecting simultaneously side by side, Keen’s original intention was for chance to creep in as an unpredictable editor. There is no narrative, which can be tiresome or throw up nice juxtapositions depending on your perspective.

I was particularly drawn to early work pictorial work from 1950, such as Animals Defying Gravity, and Victoria Cinema, Betty Grable, remind me of Klee, and the Neue Sachlichkeit respectively. A clearer European influence however is Jean Dubuffet, clearly discernible in his looser, more graffiti-like work.

Below Animals Defying Gravity, and Victoria Cinema, Betty Grable.

But the strongest influence, was American popular culture. Much of his work seems influenced by comic book art. Like film work, the element of time involved in the comic strip, appealed to him. He produced a series of covers for a ‘Secret Comic’ RAY DAY, a mix of collage, drawing and his own writing such as the first of these below.

The curators quote Keen from 2002, saying ‘The great thing about comics, originally they did have that kind of not exactly primitive quality, but they were outside the world of bourgeois art’. Keen shunned what he considered to be the art world.

Below Blatzon in Artwar, 1978. This in Keen’s ‘iconic’ comic book style and reflects his attraction to comic book lettering.

Below Less successful for me where the later more graffiti-like pieces.

Below I enjoyed the outsiderish Poet’s Cot, and the Art War cardigan.

My final impression was that I had seen the blueprint of a great deal of Brighton street art and graffiti. An argument can be made for the influence of Keen on a genuinely Brighton aesthetic. In short… SHOOT THE WRX is well worth a visit.