Stephan Keppel’s work appears as enigmatic on the surface. This is the first key to consider when trying to decipher it. Surface is the primary motif for the images within his books. After that, there are many levels to try to unlock. In some senses, it’s the kind of work that I might normally be keen to avoid. I am drawn to minimal forms and type, but when I am left without some keys/clues to work with, I find books that operate under too much cryptic tendency impenetrable and often difficult. I find their “common” attributes missing. There is nothing I am more skeptical of than art made for art’s sake. I am able to “read” work to some degree, but confirmations/keys such as the ones found in the back of Keppel’s elegant new book are very important. They allow an access point for which to confirm suspicions about the meaning of the work. Without the notes in the back, a project like this runs the risk of being aloof.
I began to think about Keppel’s work from what little I know of it having never seen his other books. I know of his images through social media and the high-level of respect his work commands from my colleagues. I am also an ardent fan of the publisher Keppel is working with so it has been easier to surrender judgement. Keppel sits in a photography-adjacent pool. He is an artist, but his emphasis on process is an undoubtable strength within his work. Artists protect their process or they make example of it. Keppel’s photographs are, in effect, an archive of his thinking and making. They should be seen as playful and process-oriented investigations for how he wishes to document his working life and his subject matter. They could be considered a form of his natural urge to collect.
In thinking through the book, a number of things register right away. First, that we are looking at what I can maybe consider a meta-image or perhaps a “copy” of a copy of a copy of an artwork; his artwork. Keppel photographs the images in his flat file storage that he has printed presumably for exhibition. The prints in the file are large and his focus on re-photographing them is consistent to the point of supernatural repetition. The file itself and surrounding accoutrements are important temporal pieces that drift in and out of frame, almost like a un-numerable time stamp. These images are oddly disorienting to make sense of, but speak clearly of an archival impulse and a surrender to re-organization.
The first third of the book is sees this type or meta-image mixed with images of strange and foreign pieces of concrete and other various materials that at first look like simple studio detritus until you are asked to recall them later in the book. These images, particularly the cylindrical pieces of concrete and brick are in many ways reminiscent of core samples-the kind that you think of when you see a scientist pull a piece of ice out of a steel tube in cold storage to cut and examine the historic weather patterns within having been pulled from the arctic ice shelf. This begins the process of trying to place Keppel’s insistence on photographing fragments as well as considering the notion of a sample as representation of larger cultural understanding. There are also cylindrical and circular marks repeated in the book which will remind one of all the circular elements and objects found in Keppel’s studio. Keppel shows us at the end of the book that their purpose is in an archaeological and architectural way. The cylindrical form echoes what might be a prison tower in one photograph.
It should be pointed out that Keppel’s process lies somewhere between photography, architecture, sculpture, archaeology, archiving, collecting, printmaking and perhaps painting. It is a total mix. Photography is acknowledged. It is not so simple perhaps to regard it as a document as Keppel challenges its use often by flipping horizontal flat file images vertical, looking for an ascendant architectural clue to its copied form thus negating any purpose of objective qualification. The images are also purposefully unclear, and without the drive to describe territories and objects with accuracy. That said, there is also an insistence on photography which is principal. There are images in which multiple exposures of the flat file have been incorporated towards the later part of the sequence. This is a medium-specific effort and reminds the viewer that everything is a mirror or distortion of the real. Forms exist, they are mutable by varying suggestions of their copies, but in this, they disregard the contemptuous state of being simple replicants-each provides a dominant existence which is challenged…repeatedly. No one thing is the same, though it can still be a copy, or? This is a false truth.
What we do know of the book if we decide not to cheat by rushing to the end is that, by way of the press release, that these images are geo-specific and familiar to Keppel. The images that constitute the images and objects within Keppel’s book are collected from his city of Amsterdam. I say “his city’ because in this case it is. He has removed or better, cored out information from the city’s surfaces. Amsterdam is an old city. It has a rich art tradition of painting and 16th and 17th century architecture. Its brick-laden canals are full of life trapped between their worn edges and yet Keppel is interested in a particular aesthetic movement in the city that dates mostly to the twentieth century, with perhaps the exception of a brick tower in what could be also considered a castle or a prison-perhaps they are the same?
The book finds Keppel considering an architectural model of one of the city’s first open-air schools built in 1939. It was a school whose explicit purpose outside of direct education was to give children a healthy environment to learn in and out of doors. 1939 was a poor year to learn anything healthy in Europe. None the less, Keppel examines (and possibly constructs) models of the school in haphazard and sagging form which he dwells on and for which he uses archival material to point out at the end of the book. He makes several photographs of the model and the door to education is unlocked within the conversation which will return again with one picture of an otherwise unremarkable photograph of a Rietveld chair. Rietveld being the name of a very particular academy in Amsterdam for the arts. In composing images of this sad architectural model, if one is still not cheating by looking at the index one is asked to ponder its significance, which becomes clear in the index. Keppel is tying many threads into one weave.
About halfway through the book, color becomes a consideration from what is otherwise so far a quite monochromatic affair. We start to see “red images” reminiscent of Laia Abril’s use of a similar color in her book Lobis Mueller, albeit much less successfully in her case. Keppel’s images invoke further mystery as to their use, but the color red will come back in heavily in the final pages reflecting perhaps the color of Amsterdam’s bizarre city flag. Throughout the half-way to three quarter mark in the book, we see numbers and letters make an appearance-in essence this is an ode or acknowledgment to modernist type and they feel as if they have been photographed from public spaces. The archaeology that Keppel employs is dependent on his ability to read these minute marks on the city’s surface and to grab what he can physically or photograph that which he cannot take. In doing so, he comes away with a reduced bag of plunder for later use. In playing with the numbers which also spray painted, Keppel asks us to read the terrain in grid-like or indexical consideration.
He re-assembles all of these components into an imperfect variation of Amsterdam itself as he experiences it. The frames are very closely cropped. There are no human bodies which one could argue is another core fantasy of modernism in the age of the machine. There is just work and production. Automation takes over and the artist is left to observe, like the nostalgic and resurrected corpse of Fritz Lang. In Keppel’s work, the interest in modernism feels more like a lamentable moment of clarity in which the artist realizes the utopia that the movement promised was malformed and corrupted by the years following 1939. The machines of loving grace have become resplendent tools in which bodies are no longer needed. Keppel is left to exhume, care for and re-appraise the city’s dilapidated pieces of rusted machinery and loose objects that he finds on his walks. He is asked to contemplate what materials suit his struggle best and how to interpret these concrete cores pulled from the surfaces of the city he walks and how to re-build the lexicon of their object-hood. We are also left wondering what is left of labor when looking at these fragments.
Towards, the end of the book everything gets a little more manic. Images feel less repetitive, though there are odes to the flat file here and there. The production of the color red becomes significant and the Rietveld chair is present, if fleetingly. Everything feels as though the city has been re-assembled to Keppel’s wishes for the sake of cobbling together an alternative future. I think of this portion of the book as an odd piece of filmmaking as the arc of the images, their flow and their amplifications come at this moment before we are led out to the end credits. Every piece of the sequence is incredibly thought out.
In this final part of the sequence comes a showdown with the new machine that Keppel has cobbled together from parts, spares and paint. I think of some mad scientist trying to pick up the existential pieces in a wasteland of dystopian grain, covered in greasepaint watching as his machine starts, spits out some steam and smoke and proceeds into a gentle wheeze before it dies again. This is the replication of the modernist city of Amsterdam that never was, with Keppel standing in as Giuseppe or Re-Animator if you prefer. The use of red that I mentioned before is the pin-striping on the hull of the city as machine/vehicle assembled from so many parts and marks.
At the end of the book, everything becomes clear. Keppel outlines (though in further fragment) what his source material and interests are and we begin to have our suspicions confirmed about modernism, history, surface, architecture, and archaeology amongst many sub-divided interests on the behalf of the artist. It is direct and you can place the pieces together from here. It is a graceful element as Keppel is by no means defined by his need to explain what he has observed or desired to re-connect with. These notes confirm also the reasons for color, the school, the bomb shelters (pill boxes), concrete etc. What I would suggest is that keys are always optional for a book’s unlocking, but that they are present suggests a rewarding tool gifted to the viewer to unlock much of the codex of a city found in Keppel’s work. Keppel’s Amsterdam is a labyrinth and the audience have to read the topography for themselves. Physicality, surface and object shall not be disregarded no matter how criminal their ornament.
Regarding Keppel’s work, it is very hard to place in the context of his contemporaries. There are nods within the ending of the book to Amsterdam’s former The Art & Project Gallery who had shown a number of artists that Keppel will no doubt have fawned over at some point such as Carl Andre. It might be somewhat specious to point to the rupture of modernism that Pop Art and Andy Warhol represented with the advent of commodified use of copy/appropriation/saturation of imagery that occurred between print-making and photography-a utility second there to consumer and advertising urges. With Keppel, it’s sort of an inverse where he is examining overlooked objects and pieces of architectural commodity or utility, but employs copy culture as bind of production with Warhol.
In modernism, utility is master and Keppel sticks to this. His images are spare and mostly ignore (though that doesn’t seem apparent at first read) significant contemporary markings in favor for aged type etc. You do not see luxury nor pandering in Keppel’s work. Ornament and over-dressing are the enemy. In this, Keppel’s work functions differently to Warhol. Again, it might be specious and one can just as easily draft in Franz Klein’s black marked paintings here in allegory. Keppel is clearly studied though his images at first give the impression of something more closely akin to art brut in their “random” readiness.
In contemporary terms, the only person that I know who can keep up with this kind of work is Bill Sullivan whose books, particularly Pure Country are about as cryptic and as interested in the last 100 years of art as Keppel and his books are. Both have particular ways to sequence their books which hide information and reward the reader towards the end. There are several threads involved within that culminate in a stilted, yet beautiful braid when assembled. This work is for people with some understanding of art, but who are also interested in how pictures work when reduced and abstracted. I do not pretend to understand all of the references that Keppel lays out and I might have some of this assessment wrong, but I am almost positive Keppel will not hold that against me. Highest Recommendation.
Editor’s Note: The press pack for this article has many great images, most of which do not do well to underpin my efforts, but I wanted to get this published sooner than later. Please think of the images as illustrative if somewhat arbitrary to written effort.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Stephan Keppel)