John Keane, Speaking Power to Truth, Flowers Gallery, London

British artist John Keane has focused on a range of political questions of our age throughout his career, coming to national prominence in 1991 after having been appointed official British war artist during the Gulf War. It is now 30 years since his first solo exhibition at Flowers Gallery and to mark this, the gallery will present a new series of Keane’s paintings on the themes of power and military, political and social conflict, in Britain and around the world.

Keane’s painting is directly influenced by his work with civilians, the military and organisations such as Greenpeace and Christian Aid in Northern Ireland, Central America, and the Middle East. From these challenging experiences come representations of alternative narratives to those provided by the press – including images of the atrocities of war, and portraits of people made powerful by their place in the media spotlight.

For his first solo exhibition at Flowers in 30 years, Keane asks: does the artist have the ability to affect change? Although a free society states its appreciation for the contribution of artists and independent thinkers in upholding freedom and questioning societal values, how much influence can they really have? Answering these questions come images of Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks taken from media imagery created during the Leveson Inquiry and of Vladimir Putin.

Newspaper photographs reproduced in oil on linen, these images are appropriated gestural drips, smears and stains, and the congealed mounds of paint left behind after the dragging of a squeegee across the surface. The subject is distorted to ambiguity in places – for example, the face of Putin obscured in Red Square by a smear of red paint, which nods to Soviet and Czarist history as well as the art of Malevich. Elsewhere images are reduced to pixilation, viewed through screens of dots recalling outdated printing methods, and blurred to abstraction.

The works on view have an ominous charge, tension is present and there is a feeling of foreboding as each image seems to arrive directly from the scenes which they represent – Keane’s gestural strokes urgently questioning the power of the artist to change the world.

John Keane, Speaking Power to Truth, 20 May – 20 June, Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork St, London, W1S 3LZ.

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1. John Keane, Red Square, 2014. Copyright of John Keane. Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York.