In his current body of work, Abstract, New York based artist Kim Keever pours paint into a 200-gallon fish tank to create mesmerizing explosions of colour – he captures the filmic results in photographs that feel both soothing and invigorating. Sometimes the ‘tank paintings’ feature miniature scenes built by Keever, along with coloured lights that enhance the various paints used.
If there’s a feeling of scientific experiment about the pieces, this is normally attributed to the artist’s background as an engineer at NASA where he started his career. But, as he points out, “I have been creating art since kindergarten and I was making paintings when I was at NASA. I think of my work as having a rather casual connection between art and science. I don’t think about the connection when making work, but it always comes into play. For instance when I need to construct something I am able to solve the problem – at least in theory. As we all know when theory is applied to the real world it doesn’t always apply as we thought it would. As we used to say in engineering school, it’s an educated guess.” Keever’s educated guesses have resulted in an incredible body of work. He spared some time for us to answer some questions about just how he does it…
How pertinent is your background at NASA to the work you now produce?
“What I do now may not be totally pertinent to the sound attenuation work I was doing in regards to NASA. I almost finished my graduate degree in engineering and one of the classes I took was called Fluid Flow Dynamics. This was a relatively visual class talking about what happens when fluids come up against a wall or other shapes. It showed the relative flow patterns that might happen. In regards to the paint dropped in water aspect, there are things that I do that directly relate to this course. I am helped by my understanding of fluid flow.”
How did the idea for using the fish tank of water come about?
“I gave up painting because I was bored with it and I didn’t feel like I could add anymore to the immense body of painting that already existed in the world. I decided to construct landscapes and photograph them but when I tried this on a tabletop, it was disappointing because I couldn’t get any atmosphere so to speak. It eventually dawned on me that paint dropped in water would make clouds so after a lot of experimentation and the fact that a friend of mine was disposing of 100 gallon aquarium, it made perfect sense to start working with water. Due to the diffusion of light through water, the feeling of a real landscape is achieved at least to my satisfaction.”
Is water something that fascinates or attracts you generally?
“I would have to say yes. As life would have it, I’ve always lived near the water and it’s always been a joy to go to the beach or Lake Michigan when I was growing up. I am always getting my hands wet in regards to moving things around in the tank and for the time being, filling up water balloons to suspend in the tank. Also, I generally swim three times a week.”
To what extent do you plan the colours you’re using for the Abstract pieces and how much of the work is experimental?
“I basically try to keep the work relatively experimental and that goes for the colours also. As I’ve continued the process, the number of bottles of colour has greatly increased. I think I have about 80 bottles on the table now of which a number are in various stages of drying up. Sometimes I have a vague idea in mind about which colours to use but generally I just walk over to the table and start choosing.”
Do you tend to learn from each piece – can one work inform how you might approach another?
“Yes, I definitely learn from each piece. There are certain decisions I will make for a number of ‘pours’ into the water. In the process things happen that I try to repeat with the next attempt.”
Do you spend a lot of time choosing the colours / colour combinations and are you drawn to particular shades?
“Whatever colours I choose tend to go their own ways. It’s really a random evolution that is constantly changing the amount of any given colour and the combinations it may have with other colours.”
Can you describe more about the ‘Pinball’ works and how the paint can achieve patterns?
“I called the Pinball series by that name because it felt like what happens when you play on a pinball machine. In this case the paint is poured very close to the front of the tank and it flows down from there. There are also various baffles that help guide the paint in certain directions. I try to keep it simple and not make it too complicated as to what colour choices are made. I’m always interested in the surprises.”
Are you hoping to convey a particular feeling in your work?
“In general, I am not. Sometimes I like to think of the water-filled aquarium as a painting machine. I am the worker who pours a certain amount of colour in here and there, chooses another colour and stands back to see what happens. After that the random dynamics of fluid flow take over and I become the bystander taking the photographs. Years ago when I was a painter, I basically thought about every square inch and how I would work it with the paint, change it, and change it again until I got a painting I was satisfied with. This is a very different way of working.”
Is your work process physically quite finnicky?!
“I do find myself pouring the paint in and running back to the camera to take the photos. I also have a system where I can shoot from anywhere in the room but I seldom use it.”
When I first read about your work, you talked about a dream – can you tell us more about it and how it relates to the Abstract work?
“A lot of my work is influenced by dreams whether conscious as in daydreams or coming from the subconscious. A very spiritual friend of mine thinks that my mind is guiding what happens in the tank. That would of course be interesting if I could do that but I don’t give myself that much credit.”
Is performance an important element of the work?
“In a way, I guess you could say it is. I encourage people to come to my studio so that I can show them how everything works and at the same time photograph the changing panorama in the tank.”
Is the experience calming, exciting or…?
“I find the whole process, or at least the shooting process, to be very mesmerising. Many other people have also said that. I have to be objective about the whole thing and take photographs, especially when it seems like there might be something really interesting going on. You could say I postpone the real enjoyment of the event until I can look at the results later.”
How many pieces are in the Abstract collection now and is it ongoing?
“I am continually sorting images out from the almost 26,000 images I have taken. I have about 3,000 that are of interest and of those maybe a thousand are good and perhaps 500 are tops. By that I mean they express something of unique interest in terms of colour, shapes and expressive quality.”
All images are courtesy of the artist. Find out more about Kim Keever here.