Dissecting Environments with Josh Keyes

I was pleasantly taken aback by Portland-based artist Josh Keyes' (NAP #49 & #67) vividly photo-realistic renderings of fauna in cleaved terrain in Fragment, his debut solo exhibition at Jonathan LeVine Gallery last winter. In one fell swoop, Keyes juxtaposed Audobon-precise animals interacting with textbook-style bisected and angled landscapes overrun with premonitions of global warming, a mix of heady surrealism and acute future reality. To say I anticipated his return to the gallery, in Migration — which auspiciously coincided with my long weekend back in town — would be a grave understatement. What I discovered in Keyes' new series of dissected environments was an even greater sense of realism, between the animals themselves and their depictions, plus the underlying warning signs of a planet headed towards environmental uncertainty. Read more from Austin Contributor, Brian Fee, after the jump!

Josh Keyes | Tangled IV, 2011, acrylic on panel, 30" x 40", Courtesy of Jonathan LeVine Gallery, New York.

Much as I enjoyed Fragment, there are no Jaws-ready great whites bursting from city pavement, upchucking flocks of multicolored hummingbirds, nor a charging horse partially skeletonized by blue butterflies. Keyes tones down the spectacle while keeping his thesis — the unknown effects of climate change, suffering ecosystems — more focused than ever. He features four acrylic on panel renderings named Tangled (as in, the distorted food web and increased inter-species competition), each a slice of urban street either inundated with water or occupied by abandoned vehicles. Within these angled arrangements dwell unlikely combinations of animals, displaced from either the Bronx Zoo (as Tangled IV acknowledges, with its hyenas, brown bear and supine — or dead? — zebra arranged about a wheelless, rusted automobile and a graffitied zoo direction sign) or their respective habitats. The curious combination of a polar bear and tropics-dwelling crocodile (at least I think it's a crocodile! My species-naming habits aren't what they were in childhood) in Tangled III, lounging around a pristine New York City yellow-cab half-submerged in seawater, emphasizes this imminent anxiety. The latter is also an instrumental example of Keyes' significant attention to detail, capturing both the optical effects of water (the croc and taxi's refracted and doubled reflections, plus the bear's broad paw piercing the water's surface) and the figures' highly realistic renderings, from tiny strokes teasing out the bear's coat to the reptile's mottled coat and the grain of concrete and dirt forming the landscape's base.

Josh Keyes | Tangled III, 2011, acrylic on panel, 30" x 40", Courtesy of Jonathan LeVine Gallery, New York.

Josh Keyes, Tangled II, 2011, graphite on paper, 19.5" x 27.5", Courtesy of Jonathan LeVine Gallery, New York.

Keyes maintains this level of detail in five graphite on paper drawings, work studies for the Tangled series and larger canvas work Stampede, that really highlight his skill in illustrating diverse, familiar lifeforms and objects, from Animal Planet if not in real life. All those complicated reflections in Tangled III and its deluged neighbor Tangled II (pairing a swimming shark with a duo of giant pandas atop a jeep) translate well on paper, even the ripples in the shark's dorsal fin's wake. The quizzical hyenas casting strong shadows in Tangled IV, alongside the bear's hairy coat and the car's surface patina, all pronounce themselves in Keyes' pencil strokes. Showing the drawings was a first for Keyes, as was executing the 10-foot wingspan of Stampede on canvas, the sole horizontally oriented work in this exhibition. Plus, Stampede includes in my mind a mostly accurate depiction of northwestern United States fauna (the elk, the wolves, the rabbit and bighorn sheep), accentuated below by an Orca in a featureless, Sea World-like prism of pristine blue water. As much as Keyes is obviously concerned with the shrinking and merging of ecosystems amid climate change, he shows particular attention to the wildlife of his local landscape in Stampede, as animals flee past an overturned automobile into the abbreviated unknown.

Josh Keyes, Stampede, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 60" x 120", Courtesy of Jonathan LeVine Gallery, New York.


Josh Keyes was born in Tacoma, Washington and currently resides and works in Portland, Oregon. Keyes received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1992 and an MFA from Yale University in 1998. He has shown extensively in group and solo exhibitions in California, Washington, Colorado and New York. He is participating in the group show Lush Life 3 at Seattle's Roq La Rue Gallery in December, ahead of a solo exhibition there in 2012, plus a solo show at Joseph Gross Gallery in Tucson, Arizona that year. Migration is his second solo exhibition at Jonathan LeVine Gallery.

Brian Fee is an art punk currently based in Austin, TX. His culture blog Fee's List covers his three loves (art, film and live music) occurring in his other three loves (the Lone Star State, the Big Apple, and Tokyo).

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