Interview with Josh Keyes
by Trippe for Fecalface
(March 30, 2011) Josh Keyes was born in Tacoma, Washington. He received a BFA in 1992 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an MFA in 1998 from Yale. Keyes is drawn to the clinical and often cold vocabulary of scientific textbook illustrations, which express the empirical "truth" of the world and natural phenomena. He infuses into a rational stage set many references to contemporary events along with images and themes from his personal mythology and experience. These elements come together in an unsettling vision, one that speaks to the challenges of our time. Keyes currently lives and works in Portland Oregon with his wife, graphic designer Lisa Ericson.
What can viewers expect from your upcoming show at FFDG in San Francisco opening April 7th?
The four new paintings and graphite drawings I am working on for the show touch in a satirical way on the delicate and controversial subject of genetically enhanced and modified plants and organisms. The subject raises serious issues about the long term implications of corporate modified products intended to both enhance and streamline products designated for mass consumption. Monsanto along with other companies are producing both products and organisms that have already been introduced into the environment and are causing major disturbances in ecosystems worldwide. The fear is that these genetically engineered plants and organisms will have a devastating and irreversible effect on the natural balance in these living systems. I have taken a few of these ideas to an eco-surrealist and absurdist extreme.
Your work obviously focuses on the juxtaposition of the decay of modern society/ its potential demise and the animal world. What are your feelings toward our society as of now? Do you foresee a collapse? Are you frightened or concerned about an environmental or man made end of our societies and/ or man?
I have mixed feelings about the state of the world and our future. The balance between our ability to sustain or destroy all life on Earth is a condition and mindset we have adapted to since the invention of the atomic bomb, and now with the threat of catastrophic oil spills and what has become very clear the dangers of nuclear power. I think the crisis in Japan though originally caused by the tsunami is a loud awakening that there are certain technologies that we are still learning to control, and in this case it seems clear that we should step away from the path to reliance on nuclear power. At the root is the power of corporations, driven by profit and not by that which is both good for the environment and in this instance safe for all living organisms. The film Gas Land touches on this very well. I am speaking about alternative environmentally safe sources for generating power, like solar, wind, and water. I have serious doubts if we will see this kind if change happen in the US anytime soon, as we are witnessing the rise of the right wing and the growing influence of the tea party movement, and the fall of the power of individuals and the rights of unions. I am terrified, just today the federal funding for NPR was cut, all I can do is try to pay attention, be active where and when I can, and vote. Though they make me mad as hell, I do find listening to progressive left wing radio stations both liberating and encouraging, and that there is a large majority of people out there who want to see a real change in this country and not towards the extremist right.
Getting back to the point, in reality the world will die with the sun, I am sure by then we will have found another planet or two to call our new home. In the meantime, with the environmental crisis escalating and civil wars breaking out all over it feels like the world is having a mid life crisis. This could just be the fact that the Internet and viral sharing of information is at a level the world has never seen or witnessed before. The ripple effect is stronger now than ever before, its like the video footage of birds swarming and flying in undulating masses, that’s a metaphor for the virtual world mind, it flows and moves and is directed by emotion. It’s the cerebral cortex of the world, and its beautiful, seeing the exchange of information and thoughts on a global level gives me hope. Except for the viral buzz surrounding Charlie Sheen, someone should help him unplug and get onto the therapists couch. So when a catastrophe occurs we are virtually enveloped by it, it is amplified and then the news stations quickly turn it into a Hollywood production and mythologize it. This is the structure of how future events will play out in the public sphere. I find it interesting to compare different news stations and study how they deliver and filter the same information. That is why again with the attempted muffling of NPR we cannot allow FOX News to emerge as the sole source of world news. I tend to listen to a lot of audio books while I work and have been turning more and more Orwell, Aldous Huxley, and Naomi Klein and others who address issues of the adverse effects of the balance of power related to profit, progress and production. At the moment I am both horrified and ecstatic about the events in the world, revolutions, uprisings, natural and man made disasters, on and on. I keep waiting for a moment to catch my breath but I think those days are gone. I am however hopeful on the level of the green movement, and civil, and workers rights, there is a sense of coming together on a global level, and it will be interesting to see if the human population can organize and work together to influence and change the way certain governments and corporations operate to serve the interest of the many instead of an elite minority.
You moved up to Portland from Oakland a year or so ago. What instigated the move and how do you like living up North?
My wife and I were sad to leave the Bay Area, but at the time we were living in a tiny apartment that functioned as studio living room dining room and guest bedroom all in one space. We had been there for about ten years. We wanted to find a place that would give each of us more room and a proper studio space, and looked around at places in the Bay Area but they were out of our price range. My wife’s sister and husband moved from Oakland to Portland about a year earlier and really loved the area. We visited a couple times and fell in love with Portland. If felt a lot like the Bay Area with one big difference it rains a hell of a lot up here! So when the blankets and buckets pour we wonder if we made the right decision moving up here. But the spring and summer are amazing, and the people are just as hip and cool as the folks down yonder, they are just a bit paler. The new location has put me back in touch with the change of seasons. I noticed them in the Bay Area, but up here you really see and feel the changes and for me I soak it in, sometimes literally, drenched.
Someone mentioned that you incorporate and mimic the tags and graffiti from local artists in the cities you show. What are your interest in graffiti and have you ever attempted it?
I got thrown into a paddy wagon in high school for vandalizing private property, lets just say I was not keen on a repeat experience. Graffiti was never a hip thing as it is now, back in high school my friends and I would sometimes go out and with a sharpie or two do some very crude imitations of Pushead skulls on the side of a sad 7-11. We tended to decorate the side of converse shoes and paint on the back of leather jackets, the focus was directed more on personal identify back then, instead of large public statements. I think some of the best street art or guerrilla art from the eighties was with Survival Research Laboratories and their public performances. SRL’s founder Mark Pauline who for me is a huge talent in terms of street related art, and if you don’t know his work check out some of the videos of the performances. I think the way street art has evolved is amazing. Look at the footage from Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya; there is graffiti and slogans all over. It is the sign of the people, and I think any architect out there should darn well incorporate some aspect of design in future buildings that are specifically designated for public graffiti. Some of it is ugly and some is really cool. In my work it is a nod to street art and possibly a reality that I don’t have the balls to do it out on the streets myself, so I do in my work. It is a device I use to convey a certain idea or add text to my work, and it’s also a great way to jazz a painting up with line and color strictly from an aesthetic point of view.
You incorporate many different animals in your work. Is there a favorite you enjoy painting and if so, why?
I have some favorites, deer, bear, bunnies, and elk. There are certain animals that for me fit an archetypal representation. There is something about the animal, the antlers, the gaze, there is something that I believe strikes a chord with the collective unconscious. It is a stag and yet not a stag, it becomes something more or stands for something else. The scrub jays and crows are more prevalent in my recent work mostly because they are right outside my studio window. Any given moment I will look up and see a massive flock of crows swarming outside and cawing like you wouldn’t believe. Same with the jays, there are a couple families that like to hang out and hide seeds in our neighbor’s gutter and roof tiles, I love em. I have ideas for branching out and introducing new animals and characters. In this show there is a new beastie who I am really excited about and it was great fun to paint.
Who are some artists you're excited about these days?
Good god John, I wouldn’t know where to begin. For those of you who still have an active facebook account and are in the art community, you know how many amazing art and artist posts and link are on there everyday. I have never seen so much art and cool art. It’s like flipping as fast as you can through the coolest contemporary art magazines, one after another after another wow! Lately some of the cool things I have seen aren’t especially interesting in terms of art but they involve new technologies that are mind blowing, like the video projections on buildings or MIT’s swarming LED robots, it really does feel like the world has been pushed into a science fiction novel, and moving close to Snow Crash velocity. Returning to my point, If the art and artists are the point of interest I would have to say that for me it is the online virtual infrastructure through which these artists and websites are selected. It’s the viral sharing of information that to me is fascinating and a work of art in itself. We are witnessing the gradual decline of the “established” art critic; the ivory tower has disintegrated in pixels, and has been replaced by the hive mind. Now it is what the people decide what is “in” or “out” or “liked” or tweeted that established the status quo. I think its fascinating and also like riding a roller coaster, where is this taking our culture, is it having an effect on our psychology? To be honest I already feel outdated, I am one of those people who wrote either college essays on typewriter with white out and a thesaurus and dictionary, we didn’t have no google. Hang on tight is all I have to say, and for me these three things keep running through my mind, Marshall McLuhan’s the medium is the message, Tuesday is Soylent Green Day, and double plus good. We do live in interesting times.
Josh Keyes solo show
April 7 - 30, 2011
@FFDG, San Francisco, CA.