Josh Keyes

Josh Keyes

Apr 01/2013
by Glen Leavitt

I ask Josh Keyes a question about the relationship that humans have with their environment and the importance of balance in that relationship – a recurring theme in Keyes’ work. He presents me with a striking metaphor, the thumbnail of a myth. “A nest of ants living on an apple suspended in space will devour the apple and, having no food or place to stand, will plummet. The ants have no awareness that the apple is what gives the colony room to stand on and food to grow.” Many of Keyes’ paintings are like his answer: vivid, clear, and fantastically metaphorical. Keyes calls them mythological. He also likes to think of them as “visual puzzles that have no right or wrong solution.” His paintings, filled with images of animals in varying states of harmony and conflict, wandering an eerily post-human landscape, are like textbook illustrations of an ecological apocalypse which has come and gone. Humans are nowhere to be seen, except in our effects: abandoned cars, graffitied mailboxes, and statues overgrown with weeds. Each highly detailed image is presented on the canvas within a cubic or circular geometrical boundary. The effect is like looking at a core sample of a dream.

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Josh Keyes is originally from Tacoma, Washington and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University. He is now based in Portland, Oregon – an area of North America he finds particularly inspiring. “I have such a strong love of the weather and landscape here. I also really enjoy reading about the myths and legends of the Pacific Northwest Native Americans. Many of the stories have led to painting imagery for me. Above all, there is a romantic feeling to this area.” In addition to a general approach inspired by Native American mythology, Keyes’ also finds more specific inspiration for his work in the wildlife that surrounds him: “The majority of images I am working with come directly from my experience of walking in the woods.”

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Keyes’ interest in folklore and mythology is evident in his use of animals. While the animals themselves are depicted realistically, the settings in which they find themselves are metaphorical or symbolic, and deliberately constructed to provoke thought in the viewer. “For me the use of animals has been a way to communicate immediately with people on a psychological level. I find that people often relate to and empathize more with animals than they do with humans… The human presence in my work is the viewer; their contemplation and experience completes the work and gives it life.”

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Environmental issues are a major theme in Keyes’ work and in his life, but he is somewhat ambivalent about the interpretation of his work as a form of activism. “My vision has elements that could be interpreted as activist and indeed a few of my paintings were intended to function as a call for action and awareness.” However, he goes on, “It is not my goal to change someone’s mind about a topic because many of the issues I work with do not have clear resolutions or answers. I merely pose a hypothetical situation to contemplate, even if it leans towards one position or another.” When I ask about his view of the artist’s role in general his response is expansive: “The diversity in the art world is enormous, and I don’t feel that artists have a responsibility to do anything other than dream and create and inspire others. I know many artists who want to have nothing to do with politics or any contemporary issue. They just want to mix color and keep their focus direct and simple, while others carry the activist flag and want to stir things up, provoke, and strive to become a voice of change. Both are valid…”

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Keyes’ technical interests and thematic concerns often converge in felicitous ways. Many of his paintings depict submersion in water. This is a psychological obsession, but also a technical one. “I always liked thinking of water as the manifestation of the unconscious or subconscious… When I was a child, I helped my parents paint my bedroom as if I was underwater, with waves splashing along the ceiling. When I incorporate a cross-section of water in my paintings I get excited. I love the challenge of depicting the refraction of the object or shark in the water. It gives me permission to have a ‘cubist’ moment in a realist painting.” Similarly, Keyes’ training in drafting has benefitted his paintings by lending them a dreamlike hyper-realistic quality. “I did study mechanical drafting in high school, so maybe those hours spent doing careful pencil work with rulers and a very clean piece of drafting paper had something to do with the precision in my work. I do think the diagrammatic style does lend itself well to the way I want to portray my imagery. The scientific format adds a kind of absolute rationalism that collides, I think seamlessly, with the fantastic imagery.”

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Keyes’ is humble about the warm reception his work has received over the years, and philosophical about the future. “For me, the definition of success has changed over time. I have been doing roughly about two solo shows a year for the past thirteen years and I am eternally grateful and thankful that they have all been received very well and that the work has gone to good homes. At forty-three I find myself pivoting to an introspective location. There are a number of ideas that have been incubating in my sketchbook for a number of years and I will be working with this new imagery for my next show. Overall… I feel that my zenith in terms of career has streaked farther than I imagined.”

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At first glance, Paul Kaptein’s collection of hand-carved wooden sculptures might appear as though it was conceived in the deepest recesses of his unconscious mind. But in fact, his warped creations were born out of a very deliberate and conscious desire to depict an unstable realism – one that represents the dynamic relationship between form and emptiness. We spoke to Kaptein about his inspiration, the role of symbolism in his work and the relationship with his medium. G—Wood is a dominant medium in your work. What type of narrative do you think it creates? PK—I think it assumes a narrative that predates the work, and commences a commentary around time and timelessness. Wood has a universal presence that speaks to everything from wooden spoons and chopping boards, to alter prices, totems and architecture – it’s like the backbone of culture in a way. It acknowledges that change is an inherent part of the work – that it may one day become something else. For now it is sculpture. Hopefully. G—Much of your work is sculpture based. What are the advantages and limitations of sculpture? PK—I’m interested in being in the world and therefore tend to have a very visceral response

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