Aesthetica Art Prize Interview: Shortlisted Artist John Keane

Aesthetica Art Prize Interview: Shortlisted Artist John Keane

One of eight finalists, British painter John Keane has been shortlisted in the Aesthetica Art Prize 2015. Selected for his Fear series, Keane’s paintings draw on images from the great Stalinist terror of the 1930s and are sourced from mug shots of arrested victims. Keane’s highly evocative and moving images tease out the human emotion of fear, highlighting the fundamental driver of violence in mankind. Combining a passion for painting with an interest in conflict, the artist uses his chosen medium to approach a universal subject and a collective sentiment that affects all walks of life.

In 1991, the artist was appointed as official British war artist during the Gulf War and his work has always been deeply concerned with conflict – military, political and social – in Britain and internationally, and his subjects have included Northern Ireland, Central America, and the Middle East. Keane is represented by Flowers Gallery, London.

A: Your shortlisted paintings are based on images from Stalinist terror of the 1930s. What inspired you to make this work?
I was reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s account of life and death during the Stalinist terror of the 1930’s, and also came across contemporary mug shots taken by the NKVD secret police, which are both haunting and terrifying. I became fascinated with the idea of a society that aspires to some idea of Utopia, yet which is dominated even at the very highest levels by fear.

A: The series reflects on the human emotion of fear. In your opinion, how easy is it to connect with the viewer through this terrifying sentiment?
JK: Although these paintings are rooted in a particular historical moment (unusually for me), my aim was to create works that have a universality and are transcendent of time. Worryingly, the recent murder of Boris Nemtsov in Moscow has been compared to the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934, attributed to Stalin, which was the starting pistol for the Great Terror of the 1930s.

A: Can you talk about the technical process behind these paintings?
JK: Images always start on a computer screen, and then projected onto linen canvas and drawn and painted, first with brushes and then an airbrush. Finally, I drag linseed oil paste thinly mixed with oil paint across the surface, which picks out some of the relief of the wall behind together with the grain of the woven canvas.

A: In 1990, you received a commission from the Imperial War Museum during the Gulf War. How has your work developed since this experience?
JK: With the wisdom of hindsight, it seems that Gulf One (as it is now affectionately known) was the opening salvo of a war that is still going on, primarily in the Middle East, but also now in the cities of the West and Africa too. My work over the years has charted many of the events relating to this, from Israel and Palestine to 9/11 and Guantanamo. My working approaches and techniques have changed and evolved with experience and maturity, but I think what motivates me to make work remains the same. I am still fascinated and appalled by the violence that we human beings do to one another, and how we justify it.

A: Your work will be on display at York St Mary’s later this month. What does this opportunity mean to you?
JK: It’s a long time since I submitted any work for a public prize or competition, so I am delighted to have made it to the shortlist from such a wide, open submission.

A: Where else can your work be viewed in 2015?
JK: I’ll be having two concurrent London shows in May and June at the two Flowers London spaces, one of new work and the other a survey exhibition. This is to coincide with a new book written by Mark Lawson looking back at my work to date. My work will also be included in the show Reality at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, later this year.

Aesthetica Art Prize 2015, 26 March-31 May, York St Mary’s, Castlegate, York YO1 9RN.

To see more of Keane’s work, visit

Additional details can be found at

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1. John Keane, Fear No. 25171541, 2013. Copyright of the artist. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.