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.