SpearTalks: Josh Keyes

Posted on August 22, 2008 Under Art

Josh Keyes is a tough artist to put into words.

Initially, "painstaking" seems like the most appropriate term to describe his hyper-realistic paintings– after all, the detail is above the average human being’s level of artistic devotion. What else would describe the process? Focused? Acute? Zoinks? No matter. When words fail in an introduction, we always have the rest of the interview to suss it out.

Joshspear.com: It seems like you came out of art school with a pretty distinct style of your own, which is something that for a lot of artists takes more time to develop. How did you manage to stay so clear of trends and obvious influences?

Josh Keyes: I actually had a difficult time pinning down my painting style. As a student at the Chicago Art Institute, I knew what kind of presence the work should have but had not arrived at the technical or conceptual framework. So many different artists and styles within art history interest me.

I spent most of my time in art school experimenting. I wanted to know what it felt like to do an action painting, or to explode an object through cubist strategies. One day I'd be reinventing a Sol Lewitt painting, the next trying to paint a hand like Lucian Freud. My intension was to experiment with as many different styles of painting that interested me. This frustrated a few of my teachers, but through working with these ideas I would eventually break through to a way of working that felt right to me.

At the core, my desire has always been to create images that fix in the mind. There are certain paintings like Van Gogh's self portraits, or Francis Bacon's screaming baboon, or a Hokusai print, that have a lasting trace on the mind. The combination of emotional intensity with a well-composed image is what I strive to accomplish in my work. For me, the most important thing is that the way or style I work in must have room to grow and change. Ultimately, the work should be flexible enough to incorporate and hold any idea or issue that interests me.

JS: On the other hand, the work that you did before arriving at this style was totally different. How did you leave that safe zone and come to be where you are now?

JK: My early work was choking in both art historical quotes and conventional painting beliefs. The subject matter was also too personal and obscure for the viewer to access or decipher. The work was made during a difficult time in my life, and served as a catharsis for working through my feelings at that time. I had committed myself to painting from strictly from life. Caravaggio, Jerome Witkin, Joel Peter Witkin, and the films of Peter Greenway were a few of the key artists I was researching while working on the still lifes.

The graduate program at Yale shocked me out of the way I had been working. The environment challenged my belief system about painting and pressured me to make drastic changes in my work. I made a point after graduating from Yale to turn my focus inward; I spent a long time looking at my old work, and began to slowly take it apart. I got rid of anything that was not necessary. I had a desire to recreate my vision from scratch, like an explorer. I wanted to depict objects as if seeing them for the first time.

I thought about and researched how information and ideas are communicated, and what basic forms of universal visual communication are used. I knew that I wanted to tell stories, but I also wanted an element of abstraction in the work. I felt that the scientific model of looking at a system or object in a detached or objectified way was an ideal solution for crystallizing my vision. Though the previous work was "safe" it was also a drain on my emotions. I feel that the body of work was necessary and therapeutic for me to create, but found it was time to move on to take on new subject matter. Making art and painting still serves as a catharsis for me at times. It is a way for me to express my concern for the world and our future.

JS: You also have a background in printmaking. Have any of the skills you learned in that area influenced your current work or style?

JK: Though I studied some printmaking at Yale, it is still a vast landscape that I would like to explore in the future. The technique of printmaking I enjoyed the most and would like to experiment with is drypoint.

Drawing is my first love, and the quality of line that one can get in the intaglio process is exciting. In my recent print releases I have tried to select images that will stand on their own in terms of subject matter, composition, and detail. The print industry and market are very new to me, and it is fascinating to see the overwhelming talent in the field of printmaking today.

JS: Your paintings are definitely surreal, but not in a classically distorted way"”they're more like dissected, accurate slices of reality put back together to form an alternate reality. Can you tell us about the philosophy behind your approach?

Classic surrealism has always held an interest for me. Magritte, Dali, Frida, and Rousseau are for me a few of the surrealists whose work I gravitate towards.

The surrealist style and approach to creating work is a delicate endeavor. As Mel Bochner said to a fellow colleague of mine at Yale, "There are only a few chairs left at the Surrealist table," which I took to mean that most of the territory has been thoroughly explored. My work is a little bit hard to categorize; though at times it could fall under the umbrella of Lowbrow art, it does not have the self-consciousness or self awareness of being campy that seems to be a defining characteristic of the Lowbrow style. Though I have great respect and admiration of this school of painting, I feel that the subject matter I work with belongs to a different belief system, though sometimes my work contains elements of the Lowbrow style. I enjoy playing with fanatic or absurd imagery, but it often resides in a real tangible context with contemporary issues and concerns as opposed to an imaginary world. Many of the paintings convey a projection of a probable future for us and the planet.

In general, I feel as if I am still working with the convention of still life or vanitas painting. They are small intimate stage sets that I use to play out and express thoughts, feeling and ideas through objects and their relationship to one another. The scientific format I use in my work screams "rationality" and "precision." It suggests and stands for the intellect or empirical knowledge, which is concerned with the absolute model of things in the world. I use this dry form of illustration to contrast the personal and emotional response I have to current events and issues. The polarity between the hard, factual, realism, and emotional expression creates tension. The intersection between things known and things felt is what interests me. As a side note, the scientific, dissection and cross section model expresses a certain hidden or underlying beauty of how all things are interrelated. A cross section can expose the root structure of a tree, or express geological time through the different layers and strata of the earth and soil.

JS: Given the earth-conscious messages in your paintings, it seems like you'd pay attention to the animals you place in them. Are they endangered or representative of certain things?

JK:Sometimes I do select an animal for it's relationship to an ecological issue, like within the Sleeping series of paintings [that depict a polar bear sleeping or hibernating at the bottom of the ocean]. I had read about the polar bear's diminishing hunting grounds due to the shrinking ice shelf in the Arctic and decided to create a body of work that expressed my emotional response to this crisis.

Over the years I have developed a cast of characters or animals that I enjoy using. Some of the animals have characteristics in terms of emotional resonance or in relation to their specific anatomy. The deer or stag, which frequently appears in my work, has immense expressive possibilities. The extension of the antlers from the head makes me think of many different associations like intuition, growth, time, and also tree branches and roots. The orca or killer whale is an example of an animal that comes from a reoccurring dream I have had since I was about 9 years old.

I try to portray animals as close as I can to their natural behavior. I want to keep them animals and am very conscious about the level of personification I use if any.

JS: The detail in your work is one of its most defined characteristics. It's funny, but I've found that many artists that paint this way are fairly introverted, and thereby more easily prone to just hang out with their canvas until everything is perfect. Would you describe your attention to detail as painstaking, or does it come very naturally to you?

JK: It is a labor, and involves many 10/0 brushes. Some folks have suggested that I drop painting and start using computer graphics programs. The thing is, I love painting. My work may seem tight and clinical like a computer graphic, but the actual work is full of texture, brushwork and anomalies. To watch something go from an outline and wash of color to an image with mass texture light and color is magic to me.

I don't think it ever comes naturally. I compare it to knitting or making a quilt. Patience and determination is the key. Each new painting is like starting from scratch, trying out new approaches and techniques. Most artists I know are relatively introverted– my work schedule has turned me into a hermit!

JS: I love that Shepard Fairey made his way into one of your paintings. Is there a story behind that?

JK: I had been gathering images and taking photos of some of the graffiti in my neighborhood in preparation for a new body of work. Government surveillance and homeland security were some of the ideas I wanted to play on.

There were a number of different tags and images that I thought of using in that Watcher painting. It was the text, "Obey," in Shepard's sticker that caught my eye. It seemed to fit well with the camera and mailbox. I didn't think that the image would become so popular. If anything it is an example of the vitality and popularity of Shepard's work and vision, and it was my own way of giving Shepard a nod.

JS: You were recently part of the hugely amazing group show at CorproNason Gallery in Santa Monica. That line up was incredible"”what was the experience like?

JK: I was excited and honored to participate in the Hi Fructose show at CorpoNason. I agree; it was an incredible selection of artists and many of the paintings from that show are still nesting in my mind. I really wanted to go down for the opening but was busy painting.

JS: I really appreciate the role that Hi-Fructose has been playing in the art arena these days, whether it's just keeping an eye out or producing great shows like the one in Santa Monica. What role do you think mags like Hi-Fructose are playing in helping today's new artists carve their paths?

JK: They serve a very important function. There used to be only a handful of interesting art magazines when I was an n art student in Chicago. Very rarely did the publications delve into strange territories with the exception of Flash Art, Art Forum, and Parkett. There have always been and continue to be a wide variety of artists working in new and challenging ways, dealing with interesting and confrontational issues. I am glad that there are publications like Hi-Fructose and others that help to amplify the voice of these artists. I think Hi-Fructose and Juxtapoz have helped to create and establish a solid foundation and context for many emerging artists, whose work is often overlooked by the mainstream art culture.

JS: Next you'll be at OKOK, which is one of my favorite galleries of all time. What can those Seattle-ites expect to see?

JK: I agree; I think Charlie, Amanda and the OKOK Gallery crew do a great job. Their shows are always unique and one step beyond.

What will you see? I am still working on them. There will be a few new pieces that are branching along the idea of stewardship and conscious action in relation to preserving a sustainable future. The others will feel more familiar in terms of style. I am investigating the totem poles of the Pacific Northwest Indians, and their relation to animals. I am also working on an installation piece that is slowly taking shape. I have a lot of work left to do but am very happy to be showing so close to where I grew up. I just hope it doesn't rain too much.

JS: Thanks so much, Josh– hope to see you in Denver again soon!

JK: Thank you! I really enjoyed the questions, as for Denver I will be showing at the Limited Addiction Gallery in June of 2009.