Jake Keeler makes no bones about his bones: "I just discovered a spot where I found this coyote skull," the local artist enthuses, picking the skull up from the ledge that forms one boundary of his tiny, windowless studio near Macalester College. "I was on a gravel road, heading out to my secret fishing spot, looking for a place to pee, when I came upon a deer carcass, almost skeletal but still a little meaty. Then I found a raccoon skeleton. I thought, That's weird; maybe a coyote's been dragging its kills back here. Then I took another step. Fucking bones everywhere. Skulls everywhere. Coyote, beaver, deer, everywhere--severed feet, even. There were hundreds of dead animals. I couldn't figure out how they got there. Then, I talked to my wife and she said, 'It's probably the DNR.' I had stumbled upon a Department of Natural Resources road kill dump."
Sometimes it looks as if Keeler dragged the DNR road kill back for his canvases. Like his taupe T-shirt and sunburned nose, the critters in his works reflect his love of nature. "I hunt and fish whenever possible," the lanky 27-year-old notes. "Spending time in nature is more crucial to the maintenance of my sanity than making art." Iconic animal forms, often skulls, figure prominently in the dozens of paintings and mixed-media creations laid out neatly on Keeler's table and stacked around his floor in CD booklets adorned by his handiwork, including the three most recent album covers he did for local hip-hop heroes Atmosphere.
"What I like about doing CDs," Keeler explains, "is that you can present a cross section of your work. They're like little books." He flips off his baseball cap, revealing a shock of curly black hair, picks up the booklet for Atmosphere's Seven's Travels, and thumbs through it. The first panel, dominated by a large gray star with a bold black border, reveals rivulets of paint the color of dried blood. Just to the left, an inset finds a husky brown bird with a white sac beneath its beak sitting on a barren branch. In the next panel, a half-skull, half-flesh human head smokes a cigarette beneath gray and scarlet paint that drips down toward the painting's bottom--and toward the multi-species ossuary that nearly consumes panel three. A sense of mortality looms large in each panel, though the painter lets the viewer decide what other bloodlines unite these beasts.
Back when Keeler was an undergrad at Macalester, his arrestingly primal images drew the attention of Atmosphere's MC, Slug. "I did this graffiti zine that was all about photos of people with their fish and their deer interspersed with graffiti," he recalls. But by the time he began the cycle of paintings that graced the cover of Atmosphere's God Loves Ugly, Keeler had enrolled in the University of Wisconsin's MFA program and made graffiti part of his past. "There's only so much you can do with spray paint," Keeler, now married and living in Highland Park, observes. "Plus, I'd started meeting serious writers, and knew I'd never take graffiti as seriously as they did."
Despite his lack of interest in street art, Keeler's not confined to the canvas. Fear and Loathing illustrator Ralph Steadman figures prominently in his current list of inspirational artists, right alongside Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline. In addition to CD booklets, he designs T-shirts and makes silkscreen prints. Though he laid down the spray can long ago, he still paints the sides of buildings--the only difference is that now, he's invited to do so. On Saturday, July 17, Keeler, San Franciscan Andrew Schoultz, and New Yorker Greg Lamarche will complete a collaborative mural on a wall near St. Paul's aND Gallery while local musicians Askeleton, Swiss Army, the Chariots, Mel Gibson and the Pants, and Bells of Skin City perform around them. Though Keeler won't reveal what the painting will look like, he does promise it will be uniquely Keeleresque--a detail he feels is essential.
"With any creative endeavor, there's always going to be a slew of crappy imitators," he says. "I don't know how many times I've looked in magazines and seen people very obviously ripping off [outsider painter] Margaret Kilgallen. Those are her people, her lines, her little doily things. The galleries that show this stuff should be telling the artists, 'You need to change your shit; it's just like so-and-so's.'"
Even though Keeler's shit doesn't resemble so-and-so's, he's careful to change his approach constantly. As of late, he's moving away from image-based painting toward pure abstraction and cultivating a simpler palette, dominated by black, white, and gray. "I hate it when people tell me they like my work because I use colors that occur in nature," he says. "Every color occurs in nature."
Keeler explains that his paintings are meant to reveal the interpenetration between nature and culture, particularly between country and city life. "So many artists who grow up in small towns completely abandon everything they've learned early on to embrace some image of the urban intellectual," the St. Cloud-raised artist remarks. "I can't imagine doing that."
As both outdoorsman and painter, Keeler himself is a result of the interpenetration between these two worlds, though his gene contributors have not always considered this trait a virtue. "My mother and grandmother taught art," he says. "My grandfather was a successful commercial artist. All my brother and I did was draw when we were young. My dad was the only holdout. He'd be like, 'You should take some economics courses so you have something to fall back on.' It took my senior show at Macalester to convince him that I was doing what I actually should be doing."
Whether he's talking about painting, hunting, or fishing is hard to say.