Gender neutral artist and bad taste curator: Keith Mary

Gender neutral artist and bad taste curator: Keith Mary

“Keith Mary is a piece of work. A figment of your creative imagination.”

This is just one of many enigmatic statements you’ll find when first encountering the artist Keith Mary. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll soon realise that Keith Mary’s practice takes no prisoners. It throws around inappropriate puns and rude imagery like there’s no tomorrow. From bad-taste embroidery to innuendo collage it is certainly one to label NSFW.

And it’s something we’ve not seen for a long time. In the sterile, often pretentious, regularly inaccessible art world we find ourselves in, this ‘don’t give a damn’ attitude resonated with XXY Contributor Becky Timmins. And it really shouted #SocialDelinquent. Becky wanted to get to the bottom of Keith Mary. So she arranged an interview.

Becky Timmins: Keith Mary is multifaceted. But also a living and breathing contradiction. I know the secret, but I want to understand the secret. So, what’s the deal with Keith Mary?

Keith Mary: I make work because I think I’m funny and I like to amuse myself. I make collaged illustrations using only non-digitally sourced images from newspapers, supplements and DIY pamphlets. I’ve been making work under the name of Keith Mary for a couple of years. I’ve mainly shown my work in pubs in Nottingham. Also, I like using a different name to make organisers of exhibitions really confused. I guess if I was being pretentious I would say that it makes them think twice about who they are working with. And the assumptions we can make about artists and their work. But really, I just like seeing people’s faces when Keith turns out to be a small ginger lady from the Midlands.

BT: Would you describe yourself as a Social Delinquent?

KM: I guess I would see myself as more of an Art Culture Delinquent. I feel like I wasn’t ready for my art degree. I wasn’t mature enough until right at the end (luckily the penny dropped just as I was about to write my final essay) to understand that the constant critiquing of practice wasn’t about being good enough, but it was important to the practice itself. But by the time I left university – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – I was so uninspired that I found it really hard to just make work for the hell of it.

A couple of years after my degree, I was stood in an art space in Nottingham looking at all the people I wasn’t in the in-crowd with. The irony here is that an in-crowd in the art world is some sort of paradox that everyone is wishing they were a part of, whilst simultaneously being a part of it. And I thought, fuck it. I wasn’t enjoying making work. I wasn’t getting noticed. And I was now convinced that I didn’t even want to get noticed by the influential art people anyway.

So I decided to start over. A new name and a new attitude. Which included not giving a fuck about pleasing the people in a world I found numbingly dull, but making work purely for my own enjoyment.


BT: What issues do you address in your artistic practice?

KM: The work I was making after my degree, under my real name, was made using very logistic processes and I aimed for it to look scientific. I remember having my first solo exhibition (in a pub. of course) and some guys commented on the fact that they thought a man had made the work. I was really pleased about this. A major problem with being a female artist is that everything you do or make is ‘feminist’. I really had no time for people drawing those conclusions and skewing the ideas behind my work.

Shortly afterwards, I threw an event with my old collective, called “No Official Name”. This involved us asking visitors to create their own unofficial name, taking the first name of a creative they admired and the second name from their favourite drink – and that’s when Keith ‘Bloody’ Mary was created.

Sometimes notions of gender aren’t obvious in my work, but at other times gender is the key theme. I like to use the colour pink in my work to challenge the ridiculous social/cultural notion that pink is for girls and blue for boys. I feel like a female artist using the colour pink – and often needlepoint – under the guise of a male name is just self-referential and pompous enough to make it seem like I’m making a grand point.

BT: If you had to describe your art in three words, what would they be? Wait, this sounds like a job interview. Let’s change that and cut to the chase: your practice often alludes to the explicit and the vulgar. When and why did these themes permeate your work? 

KM: When I decided to change my practice I knew I wanted to make collages. My drawing is good enough to get me a GCSE. But it really isn’t good enough to get my idea across without a viewer struggling to make out what the crap I’ve drawn. I didn’t have any reason to make work, no exhibition to prepare for. While I was sifting through images cut from magazines, I realised that I had collected a lot of phallic pictures (I’m not sure what that says about me, something Freudian probably). It made me laugh (I find drinking while making work also helps with finding myself more amusing than I should). And the more I sifted, the more puns I found.

I love the idea that someone else would find my work amusing. The art world takes itself so bloody seriously that it starts to become a parody of itself. I remember going back to my university shortly after graduating, but as a guest tutor for a critical group. I was partnered with a local artist known for being a bit of a joker, who had been on the scene a lot longer than me. While I was bogged down with frustration at the students I was working with, who were naturally making the same mistakes I had, my partner in crime was finding the funny side to all of the pieces.

I was annoyed with him at first, as I remembered what it had been like as a student, worried about feedback and desperately trying to be taken seriously by my seniors. I felt he wasn’t analysing the students’ work properly. Yet when I spoke to him afterwards, he said: “Why wouldn’t I try to see the funny side? If they take themselves too seriously they’re just going to keep making mediocre art.” Something clicked.

My cheeky average illustrations (here are the three words for you) keep me grounded and remind me that I don’t have to buy into the poker-faced art world if I don’t want to. And quite frankly, who doesn’t like to laugh at a cock pun?


BT: 2016 has been a bit of a humdinger. Can you see the tumultuous events of this year having an influence on your practice?

KM: It’s certainly been an interesting year. I have always thought that contemporary artists only make good work if they have something to respond to. Artists during times of revolution and change have a story to tell. Their work documents very important historic shifts in interesting and alternative ways. I think that British art has been really lacking lately since the YBA’s had nothing to respond to. And so they started referencing themselves. It turned the art world’s gaze in on itself. And it hasn’t been able to remove its head from up its own arse since. Now there are major shifts happening in the first world – shifts that will affect the cultural sector forever, and we may see some of the best art we’ve had for a long time. It’s just a shame that some pretty crappy things had to happen to spark some passion in the creative industries.

Having said that, I don’t consider myself an artist. I’m just someone who faffs around and sometimes makes things. Actually, I don’t think I would be able to make something that did even my own thoughts on current events justice. I think other artists will do the serious art much better than I would. I feel like my role as a creative is to stay humorous and unserious. During difficult times we just need to take a moment to have a laugh. And to remember that the universe is so much bigger than us, and our political constructs.

At the end of the day, when the world is going to hell, at least we can all look at a half man, half horse with a cactus for a cock being called a prick and think, well, that’s pretty freaking funny.


Written by Becky Timmins,


Visuals courtesy of Keith Mary

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