Speaking Power to Truth by war artist John Keane

Former official British War Artist John Keane presents a new series of paintings on the themes of power and conflict: Speaking Power To Truth

Courtesy of: John Keane
Courtesy of: John Keane

Updated Jul 28, 2015

John Keane has travelled overseas to witness conflicts first hand and has been engaged in his art with news stories since the 1980s, making him one of the most well known war artists in the world.

The news is full of gruesome images and Keane says he is trying to help viewers to come to terms with them by reducing the pictures to pixels.

In his latest exhibition, Keane tried to answer a very fundamental question of agency: does the artist have the ability to affect change?

He says: “A free society places considerable importance on the contribution of artists and independent thinkers in upholding its freedoms and questioning its values, but how much influence does this really exert?”

The subjects of his latest portraits include Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks (both of whom were painted from media imagery during the Leveson Inquiry) and Vladimir Putin.

When asked about his celebrity paintings he says “It’s my way of dealing with people who I think exercise some sort of power or control over our lives, my life,” he says. “It’s my way, I suppose, my feeble way of grabbing back that power because I can use their image any way I like.”

This abstraction takes a new direction in The Distillation of Terror in which Keane responds to imagery of recent desert beheadings in the Middle East by reducing the image to a formal arrangement of orange and black pixels.

Keane says: “I wanted to address the sinister theatricality of the imagery without including gruesome or voyeuristic viscera. Transforming the specific into the archetypal allowed me to engage with the picture more, not less.”

He also adds “I was particularly intrigued by the atrocities, the decapitations in the Syrian desert. But it’s very hard to do. It’s very hard to find a way in that isn’t graphic.”

Brian Eno, in an introduction to a new publication produced alongside the exhibition, describes Keane’s works as having an “ominous charge”.

“They don’t feel like pictures about the scenes that they show; instead they seem to come right out of those scenes, as if they were there as it was happening.”

The exhibition “Speaking power to the truth” by Keane can be visited at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, London until June 20.