Keith Frake is at the Artizan Gallery, Torquay with his collection Between Heaven and Hell. Capturing epic themes on a human scale, while drawing on the darkness and magical hope of fairy tales, we chatted to Keith about his work, influences and the show itself. Here’s part one
ArtsCulture: Between Heaven and Hell is a collection of your new work from a journey of rediscovery. What compelled you to go on this journey?
Keith Frake: I had just finished some pieces (mentioned in my statement for Devon Artists Network). These were my my earliest pieces after restarting my art practice. This was in 2016.
Because this work used old drawings and work from the past it involved a lot of ripping, burning and melting etc. This work took on by its very nature a very dark tone. I also started to use bitumen paint in my work. This was commonly used by artists in the 18th and 19th centuries as a colour darkener in paintings, but the practice was later stopped because the bitumen was unstable and spread to other parts of the work ( Raft of the Medusa).
This unpredictability appealed to me so I started to use it in my work which accentuated the dark atmosphere.
I then became ill and couldn’t work. I have always been interested in German culture and language so I started to reread amongst other texts the authors I mention. Certain images came to mind and perhaps because of my illness these images stayed with me and over time continued to transform themselves, in particular the images of the angels, ladders, trees and mountains etc.
When I started on this collection two years ago I immediately started to use theses images as source matter. The first works were the pieces titled The Thief in the Garden of Eden.
Previously my work had been completed on wooden board. This time I wanted to experiment with types of paper. I also had a very limited space so I needed flexibility.
So when you ask me what compelled me to continue my journey it was basically a desire to complete the work I had previously started, explore these images and make concrete the ideas that were floating around in my head. I wanted to make sense of them (or NOn-Sense). I suppose you could describe it as a type of catharsis or cleansing. That’s why the same images reoccur in different forms and guises. I also wanted to explore and develop the mood and materials that I was using previously in a more painterly form.
I suffer from serious bouts of anxiety and depression. My work is definitely not about this state of mind as in the cliched notion of the angst-ridden artist. However, I cannot deny that like an umbrella it hangs ominously over and greatly influences my work consciously and unconsciously.
ArtsCulture: There’s a strong Central and Eastern European feel to your influences – visually Chaim Soutine and Andrei Tarkvosky are Russian, and the writers you cite Robert Walser, Franz Kafka and Georg Trakl all wrote in German. What is it about the mood or tone or subject matter that attracts you?
Keith Frake: I was attracted to the German language through my interest in Fairy tales (part of my role as a primary teacher).
I read about the Brothers Grimm and the philosophers Herder and Hamann all of whom were influential in establishing the German language as an independent cultural form in its own right. This led me to research German folklore, superstition and myth. I enjoy listening to opera, especially Wagner so it started with the Nebilung Saga.
Walser and Kafka appeal to me because there is a strong fairy tale theme in their work, Tieck and ETA Hoffman are also good examples. Whenever I start to read Kafka or Walser I always see a visual image, a strange collage of disparate objects including weird landscape, odd characters in strange compositions. (Perhaps my work has a peculiar fairy tale element.) Both Walser and Hess wrote their own books of fairy tales. Walser and Kafka also appeal to me because they were always on the periphery, just outside the main cultural network eeking out a living doing temp work and travelling from place to place.
With Soutine and Tarkvosky it is more to do with the quality of the image. The dark tones of distorted trees and buildings in the work of Soutine and the dream-like quality of Tarkvosky films come across strongly in my work. Again there are elements of the fairy tale in each.
For many years I have enjoyed the poetry of Trakl. I much prefer him to Rimbaud and Baudelaire. I like the way he uses reoccurring themes and images. The darkness of his poetry is often injected with colour and the pessimism is disturbed by a musicality and rhythmic form which introduces an element of hope.
ArtsCulture: How has the work in Heaven and Hell evolved during the two-year period you’ve been making it?
Keith Frake: Initially, I was interested in the motif of the Angel as can be seen in the first two pieces. They are presented in a semi-figurative form, but gradually the work began to evolve in a more abstract way. For example, the Storm version 1/2 ( based on The Fall of the Damned by Rubens) uses hundreds of scratch marks to represent stick figures falling into hell, which become gradually become more anonymous and abstract.
A more recent piece shows the Angel as a piece of lead and a feather underneath three mountains in Excavation of an Angel.
Finally, the work became totally abstract and that is how I see my work developing in the future especially if I can find a studio to do large scale work including installation sculpture.
top image: Thief in the Garden of Eden Version 2
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