Life History

Brian Novatny, Richard Knight and Kit Keith use their love of everyday objects to create warm, engaging art

Keith has shown regularly in St. Louis since relocating here, so her works will be familiar to local gallery-goers. Nonetheless, this show is a must-see -- Keith is moving to New York in June, and this may be one of her last exhibits here for a while. William Shearburn has organized a miniretrospective of Keith's works that includes a sample of almost everything the artist has done, from the early rusty metallic books to the more recent works on paper to the larger paintings done on steel office-desk components. The show is mounted simply but beautifully, a fitting tribute to Keith's career and unbounded imagination.

Of the newer works, Keith's portrait series stand out. Wallflowers features faces of women -- those women of the 1940s, with their high foreheads and iron-clad hairstyles -- layered over sad wallpaper samples. In another series of portraits, women's faces are painted on sheets of paper from the Pulitzer Publishing Co. ledger and juxtaposed with little pictures from magazines and old cookbooks (the kind that were published back when grease was a food group). "Gertrude" is paired with a picture of roses in a vase; the "Baked Bean Luncheon" lady looks like a waitress waiting to be discovered by a Hollywood scout.

A whole selection of Keith's fabulous nude-pinup images are among the works here, including the nudies painted over prints of cute kittens. Keith's works featuring men are equally interesting -- they are hunched over, wearing trench coats and hats, work-worn and weary. They have a Julius Knipl feel to them, as if they are being phased out of usefulness and disappearing from history.

Brian Novatny, "Green Chair," oil on panel, 10 by 13 inches, 2000
Brian Novatny, "Green Chair," oil on panel, 10 by 13 inches, 2000

This is where Keith is at her best: bringing to life fictional fragments of a lost cultural history. There were people who lived these stories, or versions of them; Keith revives lives and experiences and cultural codes that have all but disappeared. Her paintings of women on steel desk surfaces are especially evocative, with echoes of Raphael Soyer's or Edward Hopper's office girls at work in the Depression-era big city. Keith's stories may be fiction, but they reveal realities of a lost time. And knowing that Keith is leaving St. Louis just adds another layer of meaning and melancholy to these works.

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