JOSH KEYES | Flat base decoded
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Josh Keyes is a gentle messenger bearing a powerful message. His colorful, detailed scenes of wildlife present a beguiling veneer of pastoral grace, but a closer look reveals a heartbreaking battle of nature vs. man’s self-serving encroachment. Keyes’ focused story telling creates unique and cohesive scenes which eloquently unravel the subtle facets of an ongoing struggle in a world that has fallen out of balance.

Keyes never embraces shock-value, sentimentality or pity; these are all portrayals that would be easy to shrug off. Instead he takes a quiet approach with each painting, nudging forward a small concise story. To further the intrigue, his paintings brim with conflicting symbolism – on one hand the scenes are so pleasingly pretty, yet on the other, they are sometimes quite sad and even coldly vicious.

Keyes has also addressed many relevant political, societal and religious incongruities of our time – an inherently risky challenge which Keyes handles with measured and diplomatic grace.

Despite the reoccurring presence of post-apocalyptic undertones, it is clear Keyes has great faith that the natural order of things will rebalance and that Nature, will shake off the underdog moniker and ultimately prevail. Where that leaves man, is quite beside the point.

Keyes is represented by two galleries – David B Smith Gallery in Denver and Jonathan Levine Gallery in New York. Many of the works displayed in this feature are available for purchase as originals. You may contact each gallery respectively for more details.

Please visit David B Smith Gallery and Jonathan Levine Gallery for available works and pricing.

Keyes latest work for his show at Fecal Face, (opening April 7th, 2011), carries all the same gravitas of his earlier works. Additionally, it is large scale and impeccably detailed – quite possibly, more so than any previous works. He has kept true to his on-going themes and continues to walk the fine line between realism and surrealism. His latest works reinforce that Keyes is a skilled artist of the highest caliber, who by combining his technical skills with deeply thought provoking subjects, is leaving his mark as one of the great masters of our modern day.

Though Keyes has not yet released a formal book of his work, the 2009 exhibit catalogue from his solo show “Sprout” at David B Smith Gallery can still be purchased at the gallery webstore.

A comprehensive overview of the ‘09 Sprout exhibit with many photos from the show including two ‘living’ installations was done by Sven Davis of Arrested Motion.

Keyes stands with his version of a “Boli,” the spiritual sculptural form traditionally made by the Bamana people of Mali. It was coated in soil and liberally filled with a mixture of seeds. Visitors to the opening could participate by placing more seeds on the deer. The Boli then literally sprouted and changed form during the exhibit. (photo property of Sven Davis of Arrested Motion)

Keyes signing the sold-out Issue 12 of High-Fructose during an Arrested Motion interview detailed below. (photo property of Ken Harman of Arrested Motion)

A thorough follow up interview was conducted by Ken Harman of Arrested Motion for another Keyes show at Swarm Gallery a month later.

Studio shot of “waking” in-progress.

Below are a few photos of Keyes studio space. To view additional behind-the-scenes photos, Arrested Motion popped by for a studio visit in 2009 prior to his show “Sprout” at David B Smith Gallery. Additionally, here is an older studio visit from 2007 by John Trippe of Fecal Face. They both are insightful peeks into Keyes’ work space.

If you are interested in staying abreast of the latest news and openings for Keyes, you may wish to join the very active “Josh Keyes Forum.”

Below are a selection of photos Josh sent me from his current studio. His clever mind is everywhere!

For anyone wondering how Josh Keyes operates, they will be happy to know he is extremely transparent about his working style. He even has a section on his website devoted to sharing his random inspirations and musings called “sketchbook.”

Here are a few examples of how he conceptualizes his work – from drawn sketches, to 3D imaginer sketches, to photographic reference. (the groupings below do not necessarily represent the exact work flow for each project.)

Worth noting, Keyes has been involved with a terrific, small-scale art distributor called Tiny Showcase since 2006. Each week, Tiny Showcase picks a new piece of artwork from artists around the world and turns it into a small-sized, limited-run, archival print production. A percentage of the money from each print sold is donated to a charity chosen by the artist. Tiny Showcase has featured Keyes’ work five times. Most recently, his print titled “Evacuation” raise $23,500 for Doctors Without Borders.

Josh Keyes was kind enough to conduct a brief interview. Below are the five questions I ask everyone, plus a few special ones just for Josh.

What artists or creative person has influenced you?

I can’t select or name one artist in particular that has had an influence on my work. Looking at all art, and examining every historical movement shaped my development. I was a bit of a maverick in art school and thought the best way to learn and also find out what way I enjoyed making art was to literally paint my way through art history. Along the way I did gravitate towards a number of different art movements and artists and most tended to be those working with graphic and disturbing images. I was also keen on artist who played against the extremes of high formalism and conceptual art and those that went straight for the jugular or groin. I guess my approach is to be as open as possible to all art.

Not including other artists or art, what inspires you?

I think it is a fusion or intersection of dream, life, nature, history, politics and the stuff of art making. I find that a good idea for a painting can come from nearly anything, a stubbed toe, bird song, 1970’s song, or a dream about forgetting how to fly.

What is the part of your process you enjoy the most?

I enjoy the brainstorming process I call it a ritual because that is what it has evolved into for me. It is a time of intense incubation and serious play or dreamtime, and has the feeling of being in a trance. In this space images and stories come forward, and I try to catch them like fireflies. After I have filled a few pages of scribbled phrases or words, I sort through them to find the ones that have potential to be developed into a painting.

…the least?
Painting grass and waiting to hear if the work has arrived safely at the gallery.

I found your work many years ago through Tiny Showcase. Tiny Showcase was created in 2004 by Jon Buonaccorsi and Shea’la Finch as a place where ‘average’ people could purchase a small limited-run print of custom artwork at a very agreeable price. They have deep passion for the art community and always attract the “best of the best.” Not surprisingly, they have featured your work four times since 2006. What is it like to work with Jon & Shea (their weekly emailers are searingly funny!)? What have you enjoyed the most about having your work sold through Tiny Showcase?
Jon and Shea are wonderful, I think they have one of the most unique print /art related sites out there. The act of marrying affordable interesting art with the public and in the process helping non-profit charitable organizations is to me an ideal utopian situation. I think it’s great and I should mention that I ma teaming up with them again to do a print run that will help raise funds to help Japan. So check out the Tiny Showcase website and definitely sign up to receive their newsletter.

Since you are primarily a painter of large canvases how does the process to create smaller scale artwork for Tiny Showcase differ (if at all)?
I usually go through the images of my work and select a couple that would fit a smaller format, I also ask the good folks on the Josh Keyes forum which painting(s) they would like to see released as a print. From there I contact Tiny Showcase and get their opinion on which image they feel would translate the best. It is an enjoyable process and it makes me very happy to know people are supporting Tiny Showcase and also helping to make our world a better place.

I follow you on Facebook and I am amazed by the vast assortment of videos and links you share – from quirky, to sublime, to heart wrenchingly serious. (I assume you only share the ‘best-of’s’!) Do you have a ritual for looking and digesting media?

I wanted to be a filmmaker when I was a kid, but I got stuck in the paint bucket. I think of Facebook pages like long totem poles of biographical and psychological moments. I think these records will stand as tombstones in the future, the whole span of ones life captured in a long strand from youth to old age. So back to your question, I use the facebook platform as a kind of public dream post. I may see something like the catastrophe in Japan and have a strong emotional reaction to it, then see if I can find a very short video that conveys that emotion. Like visual poetry or a film student’s artsy fartsy film made of a montage of images. Yeah, I guess it does fall into my process its kind of a found video sketchbook of sorts.

Is it a part of your conceptualizing process?

It is great to get some feedback on what I do. Like many artist, I work in solitude, my cat is the only one who hangs out in the studio with me, and I know if a painting is good or not depending on if he raises his tail or not. So yes, it is great to know that what you care about and spend your days doing is somewhat meaningful to others. I regret and apologize to those people whose personal messages I have not responded to, my inbox scares me.

Your paintings are usually brightly colored, clean and feature animals in an endearing manner, but a more studied look reveals there can be deeply somber themes that are pessimistic and even fatalistic. How do you grapple with the emotional heaviness when you are creating these narratives?
My medication helps. Seriously, it does but I use art as many do and have as a cathartic act, exercising emotions and thoughts, without the clean and controlled format and style I use I would most likely be cutting up dumpsters with a chainsaw. I find a sense of release when I finish a particularly gloomy piece.

Can you put the troubling introspections down with your paintbrushes or do you carry them with you?

I think they are always with you, but outwardly I am a very optimistic person, I know the world is full of crap and suffering but you have to find that balance that makes life worth living and I think there is more beauty in the world than we recognize, even in those moments or situations or actions that appear to us as disturbing or negative. I try to move beyond those polarities but it is a very difficult place to stand.

If you were NOT an artist, what would you be doing?

I would be a supporting cast member in One flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest.

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Theona Brown | New World Art Work

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