If Josh Keyes’ paintings don’t take a bit of your breath away, I suggest you visit an optometrist. Each one sits as a stand-alone diorama, a moment caught in a fictional time, with beautiful realistic paintings of animals in a world so strange that it is most likely caused by human error.
While his work is often shown along with other surrealist artists gaining notoriety in the west coast pop-surrealism art scene, they carry a completely different message. His peers often site old fashioned cartoons as their inspiration, where Josh has been moved by ecological plights. Ever since first seeing his work in an issue of Hi-Fructose Magazine, I’ve been itching for an excuse to interview him. Luckily for us, this year he has some new shows coming up, and a book signing in February. I managed to catch him by email for an interview.
Amanda: For people who are unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe it? What’s the medium and how large do you usually work?
Josh: The term eco surrealism seems to be the most suitable term to describe my work and imagery.
At first glance, they might appear to be some diagram taken from a science textbook. In most cases, the imagery consists of an animal or urban scene, taking place on a cross-section of earth that often include urban elements such as street signs and mailboxes. What sets this imagery apart from the illustrations you might find in a science textbook are the peculiar arrangement and their unnatural behavior.
The intention is to create a discord between the factual, objective, scientific vision, and insert fantastic and surreal elements. Much of the work does comment on environmental issues while others play on the imaginary, evoking personifications of mood and temperament.
Some of the more powerful pieces have come from dreams, and sudden inspiration. The majority of my paintings are 30”x40” and 18”x24’. I paint on birch panels, and use Golden acrylic paint.
You’ve said in previous interviews that the intent of your paintings is to “ask questions about the implications of urban sprawl and its impact on the environment”, which I think is readily apparent in your works. Do you remember the triggering event that got you working in that direction?
Two distinct memories come to my mind. The first being a paper mill that was polluting Puget Sound waters.
That first one was in the late 1970’s, I was quite young, and I remember walking along the Ruston Way beach in Tacoma, Washington and seeing along the shore, thick frothy foam with many dead fish. Our family joined a group of neighbors who were also concerned about the safety of the water and organized to enforce more regulations on the industrial plants in the area. Over time they achieved success and the Tacoma waterway is now a public attraction.
The experience took me from a feeling of grief and helplessness to one of empowerment, that people when organized could make a difference.
The other memory I have is again one when I was very young. I was flying from Seattle to New York, and remember spending the majority of the flight looking out the window. I imagined the small cities and towns as ant colonies, the roads were lines of ants or even arteries. I had watched a special on Nova about over population and it described what would happen to a community of rats who overpopulated, I won’t go into the details, but the result was quite gruesome. I tried to imagine what the earth would look like in 50-100 years if we just kept growing and consuming as a species. I kept thinking of a virus or the way mold spreads on a piece of decomposing fruit.
Both of these experiences helped lead me to discover and explore dystopian themes in my work.
Was there perhaps a first painting that inspired the style you are currently best known for?
The first painting that incorporated the style and dystopic theme was a piece called Pioneer. It was a play on the human species as a large fat blob that was moving across a chunk of earth, spouting random gibberish and factoids — I suppose today it would be tweeting.
Since then I’ve abandoned the humanoid form but embraced the natural elements in this piece. The overall format and composition has remained to the day.
The pieces you paint are reminiscent of still life sculptures, like little moments of chaos captured — was that intentional?
I don’t know if it was intentional, it may just have been out of habit and what I was accustomed to doing. I had spent many years prior to this painting surreal and moody still lifes. They were sort of a combination of Giorgio de Chirico and Vermeer. I tend to use the animals and other elements much as I would if I were composing a still life. I am conscious of composition, dynamic moments, balance, and most of all a sense of observational or contemplative distance.
Why do you paint animals instead of people?
In my world, it is a time when humans have left the scene, perhaps a toxic virus leaked from a research laboratory, maybe they migrated to a more hospitable area, or maybe they have left Earth to find a new planet to colonize. I do incorporate statues and monuments as a stand in for the human form and condition, they are ghosts of humanity.
What are some of the oddest / most interesting reactions you’ve had to your art from viewers?
I have received comments related to a person’s loss of both family member and also pet, how they found the work both sad and also liberating and a source of rejuvenation. The butterflies and birds in my work have special and personal meaning for me, but I am always interested to hear what people’s interpretations of them are.
I often incorporate elements from the photos I take of street signs and other objects. I have some people who do Google earth searches for certain street signs or intersections; they look for perhaps hidden meaning in the specific location I chose.
If people could see your art and walk away with one resolution, what would you hope it would be?
Like a fragment of a dream you remember after waking, I invite the viewer to engage their imagination and fill in the blank.
I use my work the same way people use a mantra, only these are visual. Each painting is for me a meditation on a psychological or metaphysical subject. When I look at them, each has its own collection of ideas and emotive resonance. They are meant to be reflective objects.
Anything else you’d like to add about your views on our possible dystopian future, the environment, and/or how cool animals are?
Animals are definitely cool; I am in the thick of developing some new ideas but am using some familiar animals to move these ideas forward.
I have both fear and sadness for the future and I also have optimism. The sadness is the immense turmoil of the human condition and the tragedy the human family is doing and has done to itself for ages. I don’t see an end to that.
In terms of our war on nature, today I saw a video of a dolphin that had been both injured and trapped in a polluted New York waterway. It was one of the most depressing things I have ever seen. It would be powerful subject matter for a painting, but I don’t have the heart to paint it.
I think things will get quite bad before we establish and exercise a different course of action, one that will help preserve the natural balance. Like a loved one with cancer, there will be loss and pain before the treatment begins to work, if it’s not already too late.
You have a show opening in Oakland on February 3, tell us more about it!
It’s actually not a show but a book signing! Here are some details from Hi-Fructose:
“Join Hi-Fructose, Last Gasp, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as we celebrate the release of the Hi-Fructose 3 Box Set with a signing by Scott Hove, Junko Mizuno, Skinner and cover artist Josh Keyes, who is flying in from Portland for the signing! Fortuitously scheduled on February 5th at 5:30 the First Tuesday of February — free day at the YBCA. Cap off a day at the museum with drinks, music, and a stunning new art book signed by Hi-Fructose featured new contemporary artists. With a DJ set by Swiftumz. This limited edition collection includes items not available anywhere else.”
I do have a show in Fall 2013, The Far Side of the World: New Paintings and Drawings.