Painting Against the Grain: A Studio/Office Visit with Keith Allyn Spencer

        The first moment of a group Zoom call with Keith Allyn Spencer was slightly jarring—both in its strangeness and in its familiarity. He spoke with us from his studio-office on the campus where he teaches—a disarmingly similar setting to the studio spaces in Drew University’s own DoYo, where I, like nearly everyone else on the call, have spent a considerable amount of time creating and discussing art. I spent the first five minutes of the Zoom call feeling strangely like I knew exactly what that studio space felt like, and also dearly desperately missing my own ability to access a similar studio space of my own. That bizarre pseudo-familiarity was likely aided by the fact that Spencer was open, cheerful, and talkative right from the start—there was no slow, awkward get-to-know-you conversation. Even his slideshow of images relating to his work and to his inspiration was thoroughly energized (and more than a tiny bit off-center).

A conversation about knock-knock jokes, a somewhat off-key rendition of the national anthem, and an unexpectedly political discussion about muffins-or-chihuahuas, dogs-or-mops, and puppies-or-bagels memes later, Spencer’s ongoing dialogue started to make sense. He could have started our conversation off on a traditional “here is my art, these are my influences, I show my work in this gallery” note. But that’s not who Spencer is and that’s not what his art’s about. Instead, from the moment we started talking to him, he turned the conversation on its head, and did so in a gleefully silly (but undeniably snarky) manner.

A few minutes later—right around the time that a few members of our group were starting to message one another things like “is this guy for real” and “this is chaos but I love it,” Spencer admitted that he just really enjoys that sort of self-deprecating, half-serious, half-joking style of conversation, both in person and in his art, which is both extremely personal (his kid’s voice beatboxing in the background of an animated video, elements of his family and his like incorporated into many pieces he creates). He’s always pushing back against the boundaries of what art is, where it’s meant to be displayed, what constitutes an artistic endeavor versus a simple object that’s placed up on a pedestal. He talks about presentation, as opposed to representation—art isn’t necessarily about painting a perfectly precise portrait that replicates every detail of what’s in front of the artists. It’s about presenting a reality, or a twist on a reality, and entering a conversation. This isn’t to say that Spencer doesn’t recognize what the traditional standards and trappings of the art industry are or entail—he very much does, and he pushes back relentlessly. As he puts it, it’s a matter of “tapping into the artistic spirit is a matter of tapping into recipes and breaking them to create some innovation or change— recognizing conventions/standards, and wanting to toy with that, suggest a little bit of resistance.” He talks about needing to produce, in order to remain employed by a teaching institution, because artists have to hustle, because art alone is often not enough to feed and house a family. He recognizes that some of the ways he pushes back—“impermissible installation,” bringing art across boundaries that few deign to cross (like putting a piece of his own art in a Pizza Hut or a Target, instead of for sale in a gallery)—aren’t exactly common spaces for everyone; he can get away with a lot as a straight white man that plenty of other people can’t, simply by virtue of belonging to slightly less privileged demographics. In some ways, it seems like the art industry as a whole sincerely pisses Spencer off—and yet he can’t escape it, because as is the case for every artist I’ve ever met, art is inescapable, and creativity is addictive. Spencer mentions wanting to be surrounded by art all the time, noting that that’s one of the keys to being an artist, being able to consistently tap into different kinds of inspiration.

That push-pull, love-frustration relationship with the standards and constraints of the art world was particularly fascinating. Spencer is more honest about those frustrations (a frustrationship?) than most artists I’ve met, particularly those we’ve spoken with over the course of Art Semester. He’s among the first to tell a group of student visitors that there’s so much more to life than art, though he’s not the first to touch on the idea that making something interesting out of passion is far more engaging than making something that everyone else will consider art (see my write-up of our Andrew Brischler studio visit, where we also touched on this idea in conversation). He’s certainly the first, however, to express openly that an art career is hard, and doesn’t always pan out, and isn’t always the perfect hustle-hard-enough-and-you’ll-make-it starving-artist success story that we’d all love to dream about. That note of truth rang a little bit bitter, yes, but it was grounding. It was honest. And it brought home the truth that you don’t just need talent to be successful, and getting enough likes on Instagram isn’t necessarily indicative of happiness—you need the willpower and determination to go on, and the strength to enter the conversations you want to enter, as opposed to the ones that current standards and constraints tell you to, and yes, the creativity and bravery to dare to do something different.

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