Richard Keen paints coastal imagery in the sort of pop Cubist style one might associate with David Hockney or Georges Braque … had Braque ever been happy.

Keen sets off swaths of solid, bright colors with bold outlines. The outlines are clear – typically either straight lines or describable curves. But even when he limits himself to straight lines and solid colors, his work is never simplistic. That’s because right out front, Keen aligns himself with an energized, heady modernism that hails back to the most revolutionary moment of the avant-garde in painting: Synthetic Cubism.

Cubism in its original form, as propagated by Picasso and Braque, is complicated to explain, yet easy to see. Likewise, Keen’s work is easy to see, understand, enjoy and appreciate, however hard it is to discuss. It is visual rather than verbal. Painting that prides itself in description, such as high-focus realism, is based on recognition (and skill) – the stuff of words. Keen’s work, on the other hand, is about visual ideas – forms and systems and how they relate.

“Urban Seascapes,” now on view at Elizabeth Moss Galleries in Falmouth, features a range of Keen’s paintings situated at the edge of recognizably “Maine” sub-genres: coastal landscapes, marines, boating designs, nautical still lifes and so on.

“Sea Geometry No. 214,” acrylic and oil on canvas, 2017, 64 by 60 inches.

Keen’s interest in the range of artistic genres not only emphasizes his own range, but it allows him to bring to bear different systems of information, of knowledge. Keen has long relied on systems logic – things with rules, like math or games – rather than simple imagery, but as he matures as a painter, this reliance appears more and more as a painter’s visual intelligence as opposed to conceptualist gestures (i.e., ideas untethered to the medium). Keen is a painter, and, with growing clarity, he wants us to experience his work on painterly terms.

“Sea Geometry: No. 210,” for example, is a white-framed 2-foot-square image that doubles as a seascape with coral skies and a cross-sectional diagram of a wooden boat. Like other of Keen’s images, “210” flows with the strategic logic of game theory. An encaustic (wax paint) white form takes the center visual spot but bends around to the right like the diacritical mark of a school marm – bold, definite and defining.

Keen also pursues “map logic,” my own term for shapes that are defined by multiple systems. The shape of Maine, for example, combines coast, boundary-defining rivers and politically drawn lines on maps to achieve its iconic shape. That map logic is precisely why Keen’s forms challenge us: Any given edge or curve has a reason. When he takes the nautical shape of boat cross-section or, say, the white-edged blue sail form in a painting like “Sea Geometry No. 209” and puts it against the far-ground coast, it’s not simply a thing in a landscape; it’s a study in the contrast of forms. And, as with late Cubism, we see Keen’s conclusions throughout the visual echoes of the painting in its forms, gestures, shapes and flow of colors. Keen is all about playfully highlighting the logic of visual intelligence, and he does it with the open-mindedness of a chess-player. His particular appeal is his acknowledgment that, however crafty we may be, human strategies will always be nominated by nature. Keen references boat forms, for example, which appeared well before the math to describe them accurately (calculus) existed. Boatmakers weren’t making engineering calculations, he reminds us, but were emulating what they saw in nature. In other words, Keen’s works hint at the history of human intuition (including painterly sensibilities) in the physical world, rather than the achievements of technology.

“Sea Geometry No. 202,” acrylic and oil on canvas, 2017, 48 by 48 inches.

At 5 feet on its smaller side, Keen’s “Sea Geometry No. 214” combines many things. It clearly appears as a landscape, for one, depicting the ocean with an island in the background. With a dark vertical line running down near its center (with a blue triangle at the top, pointing down to the line’s apogee), it becomes a geometrical tale of the curved vectors of sailing. Below the crepuscular coral sky, the dropped vertical line flows from the oddly shaped island in silhouette in the far background of the scene. We sense the visual play of Cubism in witty echoes, say, of the center mast flowing to the left and the extended-hand gesture of the central white shape. It’s clearly meant to play the leading role of a sail, but Keen jokingly follows the top line down, above the weight-curved bottom form to remind us of a breast. Impressively, Keen leaves the wit to the realm of mathematics: So many forms echo off the “breast” that we have to see it as a mathematically derived form rather than as a sexualized aspect of the human body. It’s a brilliant painting and no less handsome than smart.

The 4-foot-square “Sea Geometry No. 202” may be the most obviously apt painting in “Urban Seascapes.” It is a John Marin-esque island seascape, but with vividly painted and compartmentalized sections. A scene with dark lands and golden skies pushes in from the middle left; a similar scene floats above it from the painting’s central-ish mast pole. A flat gray form sweeps down from its perch at the left of the image, so sharply that it cuts through all. A vessel-defining grid tilts horizontally away from us at the central base of the image. The painting is rich and complex, but it’s easy to see because the forms function extremely well as abstraction.

Keen’s multi-system Cubist approach has an effect quite the opposite of most other painters: Typically, a painter’s style reigns in his work. But while Keen’s style is easy enough to recognize, his systems approach moves his paintings visually away from each other so that his body of work is unusually varied. We too often prize the branding of style over inventiveness. Keen might have a strategic approach, but the moment he bumps one system into another, he has to think in real time: There is no recipe or obvious outcome for any of his works. And that certainly works for me.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

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