Melvin Killeen is an artist, but Melvin Killeen looks like my dad. Out on the town, Killeen is apt to wear brown polyester trousers with a telltale hint of a flare below the knee and a patterned cream Qiana shirt, open at the neck, exposing a triangular patch of graying chest hair. At home, he's likely to slip into a pair of snug tennis shorts and a sleeveless tee shirt--the sort of clothes that almost gets the coals in the barbecue aglowing. His gray hair sometimes gets a little long, but his big glasses and wide-mouthed grin are straight out of the suburbs.
This is a man you'd expect to meet on the golf course or in the clubhouse over a second martini, not at the latest opening of an alternative gallery in downtown Phoenix, rubbing shoulders with your normal artsy types--wannabes with the requisite bizarre hair, bizarre clothes, bizarre glasses, bizarre world views and bizarre angst-ridden egotistical self-images.
But that's exactly where you're likely to find Killeen, looking strangely apart. Killeen has come to the sacred Temple of Art through the back service entrance. With him he's brought a body of work and a system of thought that are like his looks--out of synch with the norm, yet oddly compelling.
Killeen and his work are art-world rarities, a case of a miraculous union of innocence and talent. Working in the relative obscurity of a Sixties-era suburban tract home, Killeen is making art different from anything else being done in Phoenix. His paintings and sculpture are part folk art and part high culture. Their explosive mix of rehashed modernist styles with original, if eccentric, patterns of organization makes for work that assaults the eye and challenges preconceived notions. Self-trained and outside the usual art-school system, Killeen makes dangerous art--art that is perilously close to falling off the cliff of good taste, but which usually finds the wings to soar when it does.
Killeen, who is 57 years old, has been a practicing artist for only the last twelve. Before that he was in the computer industry, teaching programming and designing software. His history, prior to becoming an artist, is like that of many men his age.
He grew up in a small town, joined the Army, married, got a job, bought a house in the suburbs, raised a family, got a divorce and remarried. Killeen, however, wasn't content with that. He had always wanted to be an artist. With his kids grown up and gone from home and with his wife in a secure, stable job, he decided in 1979 to make the big break. He quit his job to see, as he says, "what I could make of being an artist."
At first, the going was tough. Killeen had taken several art courses through the Parks and Recreation system, but he wasn't sure what he wanted to paint. After a couple of years of experimenting with a variety of artistic styles--muted Southwestern landscapes in barnwood frames, anguished flower studies a la Van Gogh--Killeen returned to his technical roots. He decided to merge his fascination with the computer with his love of art.
Killeen approached this merger just like he does most things in life--with a disciplined plan and a concrete goal. He made a list of 75 key words and phrases related to computers, like "software," "hardware," "buffer," "memory function, "information transfer" and "database." Then he set out to turn those words and phrases into art, and based each painting or sculpture on one of them. The result is a series of artworks exploring a complex system of relationships between computer technology and artistic philosophy.
Killeen has come up with what you might call a scientific equation of aesthetics. To the uninitiated (including me), all of Killeen's written notes and verbal reasoning can come across like a Masonic rite. It's fascinating stuff, but you can never quite figure out what's going on. It never makes complete sense.
Visually, however, his system has produced some dazzling results. Killeen's work is a fascinating blend of Sixties minimalism, op art and psychedelia, mixed with computer illustration and served with the distinct flavorings of "outsider" art. Killeen's work has the charming innocence of a folk artist like Grandma Moses. But it also has the awkward straightforwardness of someone who decided to be an artist before he learned how to paint.
It's as if a cyborg and a country maiden met and mated. His work combines intense color and pattern with the everyday found object, and cements it together with a highly structured, if quirkily compulsive, orderliness.
A 1986 piece called "Nested Permutations," for example, is made up of four panels, joined together at tilting angles to form one large diamond shape. Each of the four panels, laid out in a grid pattern, is a variation of its neighbors. It sounds simple, the kind of project an art student might get in a beginning course.
Killeen, however, has taken this basic premise in a completely original direction. His use of color is both garish and captivating, and walks the fine line between genius and kitsch. Killeen has put sickly lavenders on unmixed whites and vomit greens on pasty blacks. As if that weren't enough, he has overlaid the colors with a vast menagerie of three-dimensional forms made out of dried blobs of paint, colored chips and plastic screens and boxes. The painted construction is a cacophonous wonder, and, at first glance, it's almost overwhelming, almost disgusting.
The more you look at the piece, though, the more you become aware of its carefully orchestrated composition. Major harmonies in one panel have minor counterparts in the others. Order moves to chaos and chaos back to order, but with the underlying unity always apparent. Pattern and color relationships reverse themselves. The whole construction is a perfect union of simplicity and complexity--with just enough of a very satisfying anal retentiveness to keep it interesting.
Killeen's creative vision springs from his love of computers and his fascination with their capabilities. But his work also has some strong art-historical precedents.
Killeen is an avid museumgoer, and he himself notes his affinity with Louise Nevelson, a New York sculptor who specialized in found-object assemblages. The intense color and geometric patterning of his paintings is reminiscent of the eye-catching op art of Victor Vasarely, a mainstay of the Sixties art world. And the combination of the technical and the mystical is closely allied with the early abstract art of the Russian Constructivists and the Italian Futurists in the first decades of this century.
If Killeen has one true artistic predecessor, though, it would have to be Alfred Jensen. Jensen is a not-too-well-known artist who worked in New York in the Fifties and Sixties, along with such art-world luminaries and acquaintances as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Like Killeen's, Jensen's art draws on a wealth of disparate philosophies and ideas, including the Mayan calendar, the I Ching, and electromagnetic systems. And like Killeen's, Jensen's work features bright, almost obtrusive colors that are crudely and thickly placed on canvas to make up large, elaborate patterns.
But what makes Killeen's work most like Jensen's is what art critic Ken Johnson calls a "monomaniacal preoccupation with the process of ordering itself." It's hard to decide with both of these men whether they're geniuses or just nutty. Maybe it's a little of both. Killeen is an obviously intelligent man. Anyone who's read James Joyce's Finnegans Wake three times has my vote for intellectual sainthood. But he's intelligent in that slightly off, self-trained way. Killeen, who was raised by his grandparents, only had one book in his house the whole time he was growing up. That book was the Bible, and the Bible being sacred, he wasn't allowed to read it. His education has been almost completely his own doing.
In the last several years, Killeen has taught himself French, and now he's learning Spanish. He reads three books a week by the likes of Nietzsche, Nabokov, and Dostoevski. When he talks about his art, all that education comes through, and you realize that his talent isn't an accident. There's some real intellectual prowess behind his work.
But there's also the mind of someone who has decided to play the game his own way. There's the crude and spontaneous energy of someone who doesn't know all the rules--or who at least doesn't feel the obligation to obey them. Killeen's paintings and sculptures are strange and bizarre, but in a way no properly schooled artist would ever allow his work to be.
Killeen's work is probably best described as high-tech outsider art. His work is the joyous head-on crash between the two seemingly opposite worlds of science and art.
And if the collision between computer technology and art theory weren't enough, Killeen has added a third element to the show: the human figure. So far the results are mixed. A large self-portrait in his studio is, for right now, like an awkward meeting between Timothy Leary and Albert Einstein in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Another painting looks like nothing more than a group portrait of the face in the PBS logo. I have no doubt, though, that Killeen will ultimately succeed.
Melvin Killeen is determined to be an artist. Up to now, he's done one heck of a good job. But please, don't tell him how or what an artist is supposed to be. The art world needs more misfits like him.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Killeen's work is probably best described as high-tech "outsider" art.
Anyone who's read James Joyce's Finnegans Wake three times has my vote for intellectual sainthood.