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Josh Keyes

The Portland artist creates animal-based paintings that tackle environmental issues, and we find out whether he's hopeful about the future of our planet

Josh Keyes's ability to create images that combine surrealist elements as well as factual imagery is just one of the reasons why his work came onto Dazed’s radar. His painting style is bold and graphic and manages to retain an empirical quality despite the ‘fantastical’ features. His work focuses on animals by placing them in urbanized, industrial scenes, to highlight a clash of environments, where ecosystems overlap and become disrupted due to our desire to develop and progress.

This dystopian view of the future of our planet is not unfamiliar territory for artists but it’s by combining it with Keyes’s own personal mythology that really engages the viewer and makes it fresh. Based in Portland, Keyes has just shown his work at Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York, including his largest painting to date.

Dazed Digital: Throughout your work you voice concerns for the natural world competing with our man-made environment. Where do you feel the future of the Earth is headed?
Josh Keyes:
Honestly I don’t know where our relationship with the planet is headed. The pendulum swings between apocalyptic nightmares and Buckminster Fuller utopias. Overall I’m hopeful for our planet’s future. There’s a growing concern and awareness in the way materials and resources can be recycled and used in almost everything. There are significant developments in alternative forms of renewable energy.

On the flip side, some environmental scientists/researchers believe we’re at a crucial tipping point, in terms of the catastrophic effects of global warming. Many feel that it may be too late to reverse or slow the effect. As an image-maker, I explore both sides of this issue, some images are more tragic than others. 

DD: Why do you feel the incorporation of animals strengthens your work? Are particular animals better for certain images than others?
Josh Keyes:
I think people have an unconditional empathy for most animals. I don’t think we see cultural or class distinctions unless they are built into the narrative of a painting or film or novel. Animals seem to awaken in us something visceral, and opens the door to buried archetypal images and symbols.

My selection of animals embraces mood, intention, and they are for me survivors, and in some ways wounded caretakers returning to their ancient habitat which has been covered by a layer of cement. The cement, signs and other elements often stand for me as a metaphor for the faculty of human perception, our built in impulse to compartmentalize, and organize the world around and within us. 

DD: Your style is bold and empirical do you think representing your work in this way allows you to portray your message, in a clearer, less ‘emotional’ manner?
Josh Keyes:
I do think the format and convention I use does create a separation from the viewer. The viewer is presented with an image that is similar to a science diorama. For me the diagrammatic format allows me to infuse the work with surreal and fantastic imagery that in an odd way feels as if it could be factual. I have experimented with creating images that fill the canvas, but they feel more like a scene or storyboard from a movie. For me the images lose the tension, and impact. 

DD: Why has painting become your preferred discipline? Have you experimented with others before?
Josh Keyes:
I have explored other forms of working, to be honest the resources I would need to create a life size sculpture are at this moment out of my reach. If I were of the younger generation, I might have explored film making, or animation. But over the years, painting and drawing feel like home. Each painting opens a new challenge or presents me with something new I haven’t tried. 

DD: What pieces did you include in the recent exhibition at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery?
Josh Keyes:
On display was the largest painting I have ever made called, ‘Stampede’. I originally titled it ‘Migration’, the title of the show, but after living with it in my studio for a few months, the active composition and energy of the piece felt more like a stampede to me.

The painting combines many elements and themes that are familiar to my style and work. It was a tremendous challenge for me and I think it turned out well. A series of paintings titled ‘Tangled’, are also in the show. These were studies in animal behaviour and interaction, literally a tangle in the food web. They are extreme examples of overlapping habitats and ecosystems pushed together as a result of the change in climate.