Flannel and Fur, Danny Keith's solo show of recent paintings at Ratio 3, includes fifteen portraits of bearded young men and one study of a classical bust. All but three of the portraits are made of oil on wood panel, and the others are watercolors on paper. The works are academic in the traditional sense, with particular attention paid to naturalistic lighting and figure proportions. The works' scale and intense study of a single posed subject, combined with the artist's layered modulation of color and tonality -- mixing paint on the palette and the canvas as if negotiating between the two -- suggest that they were made from observation.
By engaging with traditional modes of representation in a highly personal way, Keith's paintings propose alternatives to gendered clichés of beauty by presenting male images that are both masculine and pretty. Fox Fur, Fox Fur No.2, Fox Fur No.3, and Fox Fur No. 4 (all 2011), for example, depict the same model from the waist up, nude save for a tanned-fox fur either draped around his shoulders or propped on his head. In each painting, Keith returns to the same subject from different angles, repeating the same lighting source and background colors. His brushwork both strives for an honest realism and meticulously records every freckle, tuft of fur, and chest hair.
Flannel Shirt No. 1, Flannel Shirt No. 2, and Hunter's Plaid (all 2011) depict the same model wearing a plaid textile wrapped around his head or draped over one shoulder. Repose No. 2 (2011), the smallest work in the show, measuring 12 by 18 inches, is the only piece to depict the model's entire body: he's nude, lying face down on a bed, possibly sleeping. The image is both erotically charged and intimate, with looser brushwork, but Keith still carefully captures the play of light and shadows across the room and the model, depicting every toe, a tattoo, and even the translucency of an earlobe.
Fox Fur No. 3, 2011; oil on panel; 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Ratio 3, San Francisco.
Keith's use of the same subject, repeated visual patterns, and consistently detailed brushwork throughout this body of work recalls Félix González-Torres's tender, minimalist installations. Unlike Keith's overt figures, González-Torres created metaphorical portraits of intimate same-sex relationships (sometimes his own) that explored and transcended identity politics by using simple objects as stand-ins for human subjects. Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1987–1990), which features two synchronized wall clocks hung side by side, uses formal repetition to evoke the effortless sensation of a good interpersonal match and the constancy of real intimacy.
Keith's repeated subject matter demonstrates a similar devoted, prolonged engagement, and his formal use of repetition within the brushwork and composition of each portrait symbolizes this emotional connection. But while González-Torres's later works invite direct audience interaction, offering candies or prints to the viewer, Keith's traditional paintings remain passive. This apparent difference between the two artists' approaches masks a common theme in their subject matter: neither style of representation, pictorial or metaphorical, can bring forth a human presence, no matter how many people participate with a work or how accurate the representation appears.
The paintings occasionally flirt with metaphorical content, using symbols such as flowers (in Spanish Rose and I Hope All My Days Will Be Lit By Your Face, both 2011) and the fox fur, which evokes a vivid sensation of fur onbare skin and plays on the material flexibility of a feminine fox stole or masculine fox hood. More pointedly, Keith's sincere renderings and complex, vibrant colors convey a longing for his subjects and create an emphatic sense of each model's individual physicality. Additionally, in all but three of the works, Keith's delicate depiction of his subject's dreamy, inward gaze deepens the intimacy of each portrait.
Keith's images of male beauty and the palpable vulnerability of his desire complicate the idea that the power involved in every erotic depiction only functions in one direction. His tender attention to every freckle and hair displays a sense of responsibility as opposed to a license to idealize or objectify. The ambiguity of Keith's relationships with his subjects leads to narrative speculation, and his presentation of beautiful but heteronormatively masculine men makes such fantasies available. By working so intimately and personally, Keith offers viewers a broad and fluid range of identification and interpretation.
Flannel and Fur is on view at Ratio 3 in San Francisco through February 18, 2012.