Keating Sherwin operates out of a studio in Brooklyn with ceilings tall enough to stack two or three medium-sized paintings up the wall and windows large enough for the light to spill in. Two pieces of white drapery hang from the ceiling, bunched at the waist just above the horizontal lines of the panes. Like evening gowns, they glow with the light, shedding a dozen white rhombuses onto the floor. The floor is a canvas of its own kind, where serendipitous drops, globs and drips of bright paint have come to form abstractions, while tin cans, large round brushes, recycled jam jars and paint-soaked towels line the room, in front of a row of newly stretched canvases. When I visited the studio in June, Keating was busy picking at one of her paintings. “I’m just fucking around with this piece,” she says, leaning in to examine a thick glob of blue paint. “I’m just trying to figure out if this is a color that makes me feel something.” “Do certain colors mean certain things?” I ask. She shakes her head “I either like it or I don’t.”
Stylish, with maple brown curls, direct almond green eyes and a small cross that dangles from her right ear only, Keating is just as obsessive as she is intuitive. She has been busy preparing for her first solo exhibition, You, Legend, at Three Squares Studio, of which the painting in front of her, “Doc,” will be a part—among a dozen other works the artist created in 2011 and 2012. Featuring a pair of lone impasto lips formed by a blend of indigo blues, pinks and yellows against a dripping white background, “Doc” is a part of a series of like-titled, “monosyllabic” lips (e.g., “Al”, “Chuck” and more), each with its own variation of framing, and attitude. Keating admits she never really can tell when to stop painting. But, then again, how could she in such a state? I nearly step into her trance watching her pick at the bottom of this giant lip. At this point, she picks up a tool. “Is that a spoon?” I have to ask. Laughing, Keating peers down at the utensil in her hand. “I don’t know if it is a spoon because it is flat. I got it at the Kitchen Store on the Bowery. I love that store. That’s where all of my palette stuff comes from,” she says. The art world has seen many things related to chef-artist collaborations, like Park Avenue Autumn’s 2010 collaboration with chef Kevin Lasko and Maria Abromovic; there have been food installations, like Jennifer Rubell’s 2011 event at the Brooklyn Museum). But an artist who paints with a cooking spoon? Now that is more unusual. And yet, it’s no surprise that Keating uses cooking tools.
Not only does she describe past aspirations of becoming a professional chef, but cooking was also a big part of her childhood, which she spent in Georgia, Florida and New Jersey. “I grew up with my dad always in the kitchen, always up to something,” she says. “He never really said, ‘OK, this is the recipe.’ It was more like, ‘Cook it ‘til it’s done.’ And that’s the way I approach painting. Just dive in and figure it out.” Not only is this how Keating approaches painting, it’s how she approached painting to begin with. It’s hard to believe—looking at her sophisticated strokes (fat streaks of black combed counterclockwise, crisscrossing smears, tear drips of paint stopped shortly in their tracks)—that Keating is largely self-taught. And, that she only officially arrived at the idea of oil paints two years ago, after wandering into Dick Blick (the art store located in the old Robbins & Appleton building on Bond Street, where watch cases were once manufactured in the late 1800s), “because it happened to be two blocks away” from her old apartment in the East Village. It wasn’t long before she had turned all 14 x 7 square feet of her windowless East Village bedroom into a mural of painted “lady faces,” as she called them. “I covered the whole wall,” she says grinning. “Everything on the floor was dropped paint, beer cans and cigarettes.”
“It sounds like an installation,” I tell her. “It was an installation, but I did not know it at the time,” she says. Besides a sophomore-year drawing class at Georgia Southern, where Keating was a Spanish and English major, she has minimal formal training. Of course, she does have some fond memories of the drawing class: “The professor told me I was the best in the class. Also, she stole my best work, claiming she wanted to photograph it for her portfolio. I haven’t been able to track her down to this day—Margaret Eccles, if you’re reading this…!”
Keating’s whole story has a different tune than that of her contemporaries. She came to New York City in 2007, after completing a semester abroad in Madrid. She worked a few day jobs, first in marketing, then fashion. In 2009, she landed a job at a nightclub in the West Village, where she says, “Suddenly I was cast in the world of the hot and amazing.” The nightclub, recalls Keating, “was the first unveiling for me of what I imagined New York to be, but had not experienced. I was drawn in.” Keating describes this time in her life as one spent “absorbing.”
“I met a lot of artists, I met a lot of people who god knows what they do, which seems to be the case with nightlife in New York. Like, what does everyone do? How does everyone seem to be…” “Able to afford all those drinks?” I say. She nods. “There are a lot of trust funds in New York.” It wasn’t long before the graveyard shift started to take a toll on Keating. “I started to realize very quickly that I couldn’t do that forever,” she says. “I didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do. “One night after a long shift, feeling particularly exhausted, she threw herself in a cab to go home. It was there that she met the “visionary cab driver,” who changed her life with a comment Keating can recall to this day. “He told me, ‘You need to get out and go live life.’” Whatever this statement means to other people, for Keating this meant daylight, daytime and painting. “I feel like once you sort of access different sides of yourself, you don’t need to do it all the time. I don’t anyway,” she affirms, as she moves an unstretched canvas to the floor. In 2010 Keating committed to art as a profession and moved to Brooklyn, where she could paint with windows, light and space.
At first there were struggles, mainly fiscal. But in retrospect, Keating thinks this was a good thing for her. “I may not have had money, but that’s when I really got stuff done,” she says. “If you can’t afford to go out and distract yourself in other ways, then you just work hard.” Keating’s current exhibition, You, Legend, remains on view at Three Squares Studio—a gallery in West Chelsea that doubles as a hair salon—through the middle of September. The glossy space has a curator and a major collection of art books that line the entrance wall, books about Caravaggio, exhibition catalogues, Peter Beard’s two-volume Taschen collection and beyond. Hanging over the receptionist’s desk is Keating’s “Man in Black.” In it, a pale figure with one irelessless eye and a double Nefertiti-like crown faces us smoking a pipe, against a dark black cloud of thick strokes, smudges and smears. In time, viewers will notice that this “Man in Black” is giving them the finger. When I asked the gallery’s founding partner and curator Andi Potamkin about her choice of Keating’s work, she said, “Sherwin knows how to play with texture and color. It’s the combination of softness and strength that gives the work such depth. It’s the dichotomy that makes the works so sexy and entrancing.”
On the right wall of the studio, next to a random ladder with dangling baby shoes, is “La Oreja.” In it there are two women, one in front wearing a white turban and another peering out from behind her, wearing a darker turban. The woman in front gestures with her hand bent up and inward, goose-like, as if to say, “Why, me? Oh yes, darling,” while the woman behind her appears to be moving back and forth, up and down. Both women stand, cropped at the thigh, with their eyes closed. They are surrounded by drips, blue and Franz Kline-like, cardinal tracks of thick paint. When asked about seeing her work up on the wall, Keating says, “You know what? It was really awesome to see it just out of the context of being jumbled over my studio and home, where it’s completely inflicted with all the other bullshit from my mind.”
Eventually, Keating hopes to take a break from the city. “I want a studio in a barn, maybe by the water. And a garden,” In addition to painting, she adds, “I would be pretty pumped to grow things and cook things and walk on the beach.” For now, however, she still paints full time at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, where she can see the sun rise and set. “Towards the end of the day is when the good things happen,” she says. “There’s a lot of crap work you have to get out of the system. And at the end, you just sort of come swooping in with something just sort of really magical.”