For much of his career, New Bedford sculptor and painter Keith Francis happily pursued “art for art’s sake.”
He was an unapologetic formalist, adhering to a doctrine that places the aesthetic elements of a painting or a sculpture — color, composition, form, texture and abstraction, for example — over the need to deliver a narrative or be concerned with its role in the world, beyond what it looked like or how it was made.
So how did he end up with a politically and socially loaded and somewhat controversial work in an Italian art center?
That work is called “Welcome!” It is a fabric piece consisting of 16 American flags sewn together to form a large rectangle. On the bottom of each of the component flags, Francis has screen printed a line of boldface text that echoes the sentiments harbored by some in our collective past (and present) regarding immigration.
What follows is but a somewhat disturbing sampling: NO ITALIANS. NO COLOREDS. NO JAPANESE. NO MUSLIMS. NO JEWS. NO IRISH. NO MEXICANS. NO CHINESE…
Francis created “Welcome!” when he was pursuing an MFA at the Mass College of Art in Boston about a decade ago. When he displayed it, he was told to take it down as it was “divisive.”
Nonetheless, it was purchased in 2021 by the Alfa Gallery in Miami before being sent to one of their clients in Monfalcone, Italy.
“Welcome!” is presently being shown in “American Beauty,” an exhibition at the Altinate/San Gaetano Cultural Center in Padua, Italy, until Jan. 21, 2024. It includes paintings, sculpture, prints, art photography and photojournalism. All include the American flag in some form.
Francis’s co-exhibitors include Banksy, Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, Annie Leibotvitz, Robert Longo, Keith Haring, Vito Acconci, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andres Serrano and Joe Rosenthal, best known for his famed propaganda photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.”
But what brought about Francis’s shift from formalism to art activism?
In 2014, he was invited to participate in “A Commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement 1964-1968” at Delaware State University in Dover, Delaware. He visited the campus, where the vast majority of the students are Black. He became involved in multiple conversations and formed an idea that led to a conceptual mixed-media art piece that bluntly spoke to Black voter suppression.
He was commissioned to construct “Let’s Vote.”
Angered by his knowledge of the so-called “literacy tests” that were administered to Black voters in the South to determine a purposely vague level of education prior to allowing access to voting (until The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the practice), Frances constructed two 17 x 17 x 3-inch boxes, made from wood, PVC panel and custom electronics.
Both were painted bright red with deep blue borders. They were mounted to a gallery wall, a few inches apart. Above the boxes was a small rectangular sign which read “Voting Literacy Test.” There were two arrows. Next to one arrow was the word “white” and pointed to the box on the left. On the right was another arrow and the word “colored,” which pointed to the box on the right.
Both boxes had a round hole in the center. Each box had a peg tethered to it. The white voters could easily insert their round pegs into the hole. The “colored” voters could not possibly insert their square pegs in. Vote denied.
At the opening exhibition, Francis met a woman who said “I remember that.” She was with her grandmother, who was crying and said, “I lived that.”
At that event, he met dozens of people who were in tears. People were talking about the alienation, disenfranchisement and hurt caused by Jim Crow law and the subtle ways it is still echoed.
One elderly woman told him: “I can’t believe a white boy did this.”
Francis realized that he suddenly was doing something real. There was something beyond formalism, something more basic, more grounded and necessary.
As he drove back to New Bedford from Delaware, impassioned by his experience, his trajectory shifted from the ether of aestheticism to the agony of the everyday. Class warfare, racial inequality, corporate greed, political corruption, nuclear proliferation, climate change and gun violence were to become his subject matter.
It is important to note that even though Francis’s dominant motif began to lean toward political and social issues, he has not abandoned artisanry and visual inventiveness, as those are the tools he has always deployed to great success.
As a mixed media artist with the sensibility of junkyard scavenger, he utilizes objects as mundane as a weather beaten parking meter and as unexpected as old pinball machines as the raw material and origin point of his work.
One vintage Gottileb pinball machine was repurposed as a vehicle to present facts about the dire possibility of a nuclear exchange and was called “A Strange Game (The Only Winning Move is Not to Play).”
Another repurposed pinball machine, named “Democracy is A Game,” commented on the nation’s great political divide between the left and the right, decorated with among many other elements, a red elephant and a blue donkey. Hung from the plunger was a placard that read: OUT OF ORDER. That piece is now in the collection of the Artemizia Contemporary Art Museum in Bisbee, Arizona.
There are two newly finished works in Francis’s North End studio.
“What If?” features the image of a young girl, no more than 10, painted on a 4 x 4-foot steel rectangle that had previously been submerged in the Acushnet River to hasten its decay, paradoxically creating a rather beautiful surface texture.
The girl’s arms are splayed out from her torso, her palms facing upward as if to feel the rain implied by the marks on the steel.
Her head is completely covered by a real antique gas mask. Her dress appears scorched and for good reason. Francis used a blowtorch as an instrument to bring out deep hues and to further alter the surface.
“What If?” again speaks to the horrors of war and to the potential of environmental disaster.
The second new piece is “Enough is Enough.” It is a vintage gumball machine with its base painted red, white and blue. A small metal eagle, as one might see atop a flagpole, is mounted on top.
There is no gum within the globe. Instead, it was filled with bullets, which the artist easily purchased on Amazon. (The cartridges are inert and non-functioning.)
“Enough is Enough” was completed a few days prior to the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine.
The title says it all.
Francis has, on occasion, received vitriolic anonymous messages by those who disagree with his world view. But clearly, from Arizona to Italy, there are many that appreciate his serious consideration of difficult subjects.
There are several of his less controversial sculptures currently on display in the city, including “Glittering Patterns” along the New Bedford Seaport Art Walk on Route 18, and “LoveLocks” at the Nye Street Pocket Park on Acushnet Avenue.
For those who want to delve in the heavier stuff, visit keithfrancisart.com.
Don Wilkinson is an art critic and cultural commentator for numerous local publications. He received a BFA from the Swain School of Design in 1982 and an MFA from the CVPA at UMD in 1991. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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