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Art for Sale! Cheap!

Stephen Keene makes art for the masses. Is that a bad thing?

Stephen Keene's exhibition "Fresh Art Daily," now at the Rice University Art Gallery, is a theme park of the imagination, a Wonderland for a modern-day Alice. Signlike paintings cover the walls from floor to ceiling; eye-popping furniture and playful, seductive paintings occupy every nook and cranny. For the past five weeks, the artist has set up shop inside the gallery, painting, hanging and -- very pointedly -- selling his work. By the time the exhibition ends on October 18, he will have sold nearly 2,000 painted objects, none of them for more than $20. The idea of his performance/exhibit, he says, is to make original art accessible to everyone: "It's art, it's cheap, and it changes your life. But the object has no status."

The response has been nothing short of phenomenal. Sundays -- the only day the paintings are sold -- have been mob scenes, with hundreds of people lining up at the gallery door, slipping money into an "honor box" and taking home original Keenes.

They also stand in the hall outside the gallery, looking through its plate-glass window to watch 41-year-old Keene paint. He uses an assembly-line technique, setting up 30 to 40 boards at a time on homemade easels, then rapidly going down the line, making the same acrylic brush stroke on one painting after another until he has completed identical scenes. He works as if on auto-pilot, like a machine.

Keene's models include newspaper photos, magazines, art reproductions and even post cards. From them, he produces multiple Sammy Sosas, hot-pink city scapes and Indian chiefs, ice-blue Alpine vistas, pumped-up Venetian palazzos, candy-bar wrappers and Renaissance lute players. Added to such far-flung remnants are bits of Texana: cacti and sunflowers, the San Jacinto monument, the Astrodome, Bayou Bend and, of course, the hallowed halls of Rice University.

In the gallery, these works add up to an environment like a frenetic stage set, a place that at first seems crazy. But given time, it reveals itself to be a tableau full of unexpected juxtapositions and ripe with deliciously subversive details.

Little is what it seems to be. Perspective wavers and wobbles. Paint splatters turn out to be strategically aimed gestures. Wandering through the installation is, by turns, like tumbling into one of Matisse's canvases -- all color and form in endless fluid flux -- and winding through a Beat poem, where the author realizes that everything contains the potential for beauty.

Browsing the hundreds of works, viewers can easily detect stylistic riffs and heartfelt allusions. There's tweaked cartoon pastiche, outsider compulsivity, faux Pollock drips, Pattern-and-Decoration fantasy, and objects that look like they've been lifted from a ride at Disneyland. There are plain debts to a number of artists: romantic landscape painter Frederick Church, Indian portrait painter George Catlin, modernist Stuart Davis, avant-garde musician John Cage and contemporary sculptor Red Grooms. It's as if Keene feels he has no choice but to empty himself completely into art, to pump out the contents of his media-soaked psyche as exhaustively as ER doctors pump stomachs. Yet he does it with great respect for painting's technique, using each lyrical stroke to make an image. Taken as a whole, the exhibition has an engaging nonchalance, a precise goofiness that gives the work weight but not weightiness.

Keene began painting this way nearly a decade ago. Feeling disconnected from the art world, irked by its exclusivity and hierarchy, he began selling his paintings in bars and at rock shows. He painted CD covers for alternative-rock groups: Pavement, Apples in Stereo, the Silver Jews. Until recently, his only art venue was New York's Threadwaxing Space. And his performance/exhibition last fall at the venerable Moore College of Art in Philadelphia sparked controversy among professors and students alike.

His populist stance rattles the art world because he undermines the sanctity of expensive, scarce objects. But even as he raises the hackles of cultural purists, he also brings back an innocence that the art world somehow lost. By advising artists to leave their ivory towers and look at the world around them, he attacks art's century-long alienation from society.

He considers his individual works to be "souvenirs" of his elaborate environments -- much like the T-shirt that commemorates a beach vacation, or the CD that helps you recall a concert. The souvenir concept is hardly new (think of the famous Pop Shop inside Keith Haring's retrospective). But viewing Keene's installation seems less like gallery-going and more like window-shopping -- or rather, like gallery-going as window-shopping.

So what does it mean that an artist has created his own version of the Beanie Baby frenzy? Are people buying the works like lottery tickets, hoping they'll parlay their $2 investment into vast riches? Do they care deeply about something that cost only $5?

At stake is what it now means to be an artist. Keene's performance puts one in mind of another artist who stands in a similar spotlight with a rack of brushes and palette in hand. I'm referring to Bob Ross, that PBS personality who churns out pretty landscapes with happy little trees in just 30 minutes of airtime. Bob's paintings are horrible, lacking even camp value. But the real genius of his project is that it will never be finished: His TV image lives as long as millions of viewers believe he's the greatest painter ever. The TV audience allows Bob to substitute quantity for quality.

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