Earlier last semester, I went to Quality Pie on Avon Street, and I got the creeping and nagging feeling that I had seen the kind of jagged and hurried paintings that covered the building’s walls before, but didn’t know where. It stuck with me. I knew I had only seen the paintings in Charlottesville, but a variety of Google searches turned up no results. A few days later, however, I was browsing my Instagram feed and came across a WTJU post of similar looking artwork and began to connect the dots. The colorful paintings, created by artist Steeve Keene, I learned, were everywhere around Charlottesville – at Quality Pie, Crozet Pizza and Buddhist Biker Bar, and the WTJU studio on Ivy Road, where I was most familiar with them. Last Saturday I went to the studio and took photographs of some of the Steeve Keene paintings that are hanging up around the studio, most of which say WTJU or Charlottesville somewhere with different phrases. One says “Great Songs” above a choir, another has a painting of breakfast food with the words “Band Meals” painted above it, another reads “We Need You,” and there are a few “WTJU Rock Marathon” ones as well.
I love Keene’s paintings because they seem special to Charlottesville, and my own path to uncovering their backstory took me around a mental map of Charlottesville. Born in Virginia, Steve Keene received his undergraduate degree from VCU in the 1990s, and while living in Richmond he volunteered as a DJ for WTJU in the 1990s. While volunteering at WTJU, Keene became friends with future members of Pavement and Silver Jews, also WTJU DJs and UVA students. Keene later painted the cover for Pavement’s 1995 album Wowee Zowee as well as Silver Jew’s 1993 album The Arizona Record. Steve Keene has created tons of paintings – at least 300,000, according to his website – and he typically creates around fifty copies of the same painting, although the WTJU paintings are all singles.
Many of his paintings are of popular albums or have some kind of music theme. For example, I found some of Merle Haggard, The White Stripes, and Amy Winehouse on his Instagram page. Keene refers to himself as a “conceptual folk artist,” and as the sheer volume of his work suggests, he wants to be a democratizing force in an art world that is designed to be hierarchical and inaccessible. He says that he wants “buying [his] paintings to be like buying a CD…. it’s cheap, it’s art, and it changes your life, but the object has no status” (Sargent). The photographs I’ve attached to this article are all pictures of current Steve Keene paintings hanging in the studio, and Keene painted them at the request of WTJU in 2015 (UVA Arts). My favorite is the one with the words “Good Times Good Times” painted over a kind of spooky blue colored rotunda.
By Caroline Young, a co host of “Sunday Brunch” on Sundays from 6 – 8 pm
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