My Process – Max Keene


by Wendy McGrath

I scale the stairs to the second floor of the University of Alberta’s Fine Arts Building and stop in front of an installation by Max Keene. On the wall on the other side of the glass are four large colour photographs, on the floor a collection of objects. Other objects are suspended in between. What strikes me about this exhibition is Keene’s cheeky playfulness. These set pieces create a hold-your-breath sort of anticipation, like that instant before the ubiquitous ACME anvil falls on top of Wile E. Coyote. How apt, then, that the pieces of this installation are part of a project entitled: “Booby Traps.”

Keene has obviously succeeded in his goal of “giving the viewer the sense that something was about to happen, a kind of implied movement.” He adds, “I was becoming interested in sculpture but didn’t really like the implication that it’s frozen in time. But with these, they’re like booby-traps. Frozen before something’s going to happen.”

There are some interesting and evocative objects in Keene’s installations: a fake hand, a large silver ball-bearing, a Birkenstock shoe, a rock, a panini sandwich. “When something looks out of place or looks peculiar in an environment, I’m drawn to that.” Some of the items Keene has salvaged include: Culligan water jugs, a skeleton mask from some bushes near the Butterdome parking lot, a badminton birdie by a pile of wood. The fake hand incorporated into this tableau he’s had since he was a child and brought with him when he moved from Regina to Edmonton. He found a silver orb in bushes at a barbeque in Regina when he was seven years old. The Birkenstock which functions as a cantilever he simply took off his foot and the panini was from La Pasta in HUB Mall. (He ate it after he took the photograph of the installation). “I approach things intuitively. If a few things went together, I just took it from there.”

Keene finished his BFA at the U of A this spring and wants to continue making strong connections in Edmonton’s artistic community. What he’s found strange, since leaving university, is that there is no one providing feedback on his work. “The biggest adjustment is making work and not having anyone critique it.” With a major in printmaking and a focus in intermedia, he is attracted to the possibilities of word and image and found objects. “I wanted something more than I could get with sculpture where the suggestion of motion is absent. Not so with these. What can fill in the blanks?”

Keene is looking forward to being Emerging Artist-in-Residence at SNAP beginning January 2019. “I can’t wait to have another opportunity to work in the studio. I can look back at what I did in my undergrad and really think about it.” He wants to return to large format photography. He develops the film himself. “Analog all the way! I love the spontaneity, and accidents, and mistakes. I love the colours and the way they render.”


Born: Edmonton, Alberta
Education: BFA University of Alberta. focus in Printmaking and Intermedia
Favourite artists: Jamian Juliano-Villani, Tom Sachs, Chris Maggio.
Favourite book: 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft by Robert Bashlow and Tuli Kupferberg.
Favourite album: (impossible to pick one!) “A Grand Don’t Come for Free” by The Streets.
Music playing while printmaking (and why): So much different stuff. Right now, the group Kero Kero Bonito—really high energy.

What/who do you consider to be the greatest influence on your work?
I think that being exposed to experimental music and film by my dad when I was young was a huge influence on me.

When did you begin printmaking and what attracted you to it?
The first time I ever did any printmaking was back in high school. I love photography and print is a great way to take things off the computer and make them physical.

Do you have a permanent workspace? How does this space affect your art?
I don’t! I think it benefits the way I work. Sometimes having constraints helps you make decisions easier. Working without a studio has given me a great opportunity to learn how to 3D render.

How do the possibilities of installation—using real and imagined spaces—inspire you?
I love working with installation. In most of my work I try and augment things that are vaguely familiar. I really like the idea of being able to accentuate an existing space. I’ve always liked working with interior spaces and installation just feels like an extension of that.

How does the metaphor of nonorganic materials (in particular, the blueprint) impact your work?
A lot of my work involves simulations (particularly materials mimicking other materials). I think our daily life is full of subtle simulations. Blueprinting has always been interesting to me for a different reason, I’ve used cyanotype for images of unkempt interior spaces because of its connection to the early stages of construction.

How do you make space (literal and/or figurative) for spontaneity in your work?
I try to work in a real fervour, pretty quickly. I love working fast enough that when I look at my work after it’s done it’s still surprising and exciting. I think working like that helps me judge my own work a bit more objectively and allows me to make decisions that I wouldn’t if I were overthinking things.

Can you describe your creative process?
I take notes of things I think are interesting and strange throughout the day. Often I just take a lot of photos on my phone. Then, I think about why those things are interesting and see if they can become a basis for any sort of artwork.

“What happens next” for you, Max Keene?
This November I’ll be off to Toronto for the BMO Art First exhibition and I’m very excited! Also, really looking forward to being the 2019 SNAP Emerging Artist-in-Residence. Right now, I’m just trying to focus on making work whenever I can and keep learning things!

Image credits:
(Header image) Max Keene, Wood Shot, digital print, 2017 and Detergent, digital print, 2017.
(Image with main text) Max Keene, Lighthouse, digital print, 2017.