Can art be effective as a tool for advocacy? California painter Josh Keyes clearly thinks so. His current show at OKOK Gallery wears its environmentalist heart on its sleeve, and the results, according to KUOW art critic Gary Faigin, are mixed. Gary joins us now with his comments.
The paintings of Josh Keyes stand out from the crowd of artists concerned with the despoiling of nature in two ways: first, by his spectacular technical facility, particularly as an animal artist; second, by his visualizing the struggle of man vs. nature as a sort of a free-standing, museum diorama.
Each of Keyes’s paintings - precise, deadpan acrylics with more than a passing nod to the world of science textbooks and wildlife illustration - shows the living world taken entirely out of its landscape context. Instead, the charismatic megafauna of the Pacific Northwest are arranged in a sort of terrarium, forced to cohabit a tiny block of soil or cement with an assortment of man- made irritants – wrecked cars, security cameras, litter, and graffiti.
It sounds heavy-handed, and it is - a danger in any agenda-driven art. While seriously lacking in subtlety, the paintings are extremely attractive – Keyes never lets the nasty stuff get the upper hand, his arrangements are highly inventive, and he paints with an overwhelming conviction of the importance and appeal of his animal subject matter.
In Totem IV Keyes arranges his creatures vertically, like the icons depicted on traditional totem poles. The setting for his “pole” is a cut-away section of concrete seen underlying a transparent aquamarine block of sea water. Keyes has truly mastered the art of objects seen refracted through liquid, but his slice of water also has the look and texture of a plastic pedestal, drawn in perfect perspective. Poking out of this aquatic box is a squat khaki-colored mailbox, its top providing a dry island for a huddled, staring group of animals, including a wolf, a raven, and a pair of raccoons. Two salmon swim by, while on the bottom a few blades of green grass sprout incongruously (and impossibly) from cracks in the drowned concrete. On the mailbox is graffiti that seem to refer to polar melting, global warming, and the commodification of native America, with an Indian head in the form of a peace sign. The entire ensemble, as in all Keyes’s work, is surrounded by blank white canvas, further reinforcing the sense of wildness cornered, isolated, exiled.
Even more dystopic is Raft, where the stranded wildlife includes a killer whale, a grizzly bear, and a bald eagle, all resting uncomfortably atop the roof of an drowned car, while a discarded freeway sign rests alongside. Nobody’s going anywhere – in this case the aquatic pedestal is barely bigger than the whale, and the car is pushing the orca’s body halfway out of the water. It’s an environmental shipwreck, like the famous Gericault painting referred to in the title, with which it shares both its triangular composition and a sense of a disaster in progress – only this time there’s no rescue vessel in sight.
Native Americans, in Keyes’s worldview, are also impounded and enclosed. They’re represented in the exhibition by several paintings featuring colorful totem poles, but the poles are being pressed into service as stands for giant security cameras - Big Brother meets Big Chief. Nobody’s getting off the reservation, either.
There’s a disconnect here which I found disturbing – the grimness of Keye’s End-of-Nature message is at odds with the clean, commercial-art look of his work; if things are really that bad, why is the paint itself so inexpressive? But the style issue really becomes a problem for me with the three pieces in the Guardian series, meant as an alternative, uplifting view of our environmental quandary. Far from being inspiring, these paintings decisively fall off the aesthetic cliff the other paintings merely flirt with. The images of giant green hands cradling a healthy, alpine meadow complete with miniature evergreens, rocks, birds, and beasts, seems more like an ad for a timber company polishing its image than the environmentalist call to planet stewardship the artist intended. It’s one thing to use a commercial art vocabulary, subversively, for images of dysfunction and decay; it’s quite another to use it to promote something generically positive (nature), using a treatment as bland and well-meaning as a Smoky the Bear fire prevention poster.
Style and content merge much more seamlessly in a neighboring work by Iole Alessandrini, whose tiny video installation called I Am Here, I Was There is a sheer delight. Placed atop a counter next to the gallery reception desk (a spot now dubbed the “World’s Smallest Gallery”), the piece consists simply of a diminutive flat TV monitor with a camera pointed at the viewer. The trick is that behind our own image appearing in the black and white screen we see a curved legend in white letters: “La Citta’ Del Vaticano”, i.e. The Vatican City. The lettering appears to circle our head, like a halo or a banner; it’s only when we look up that we realize that the words are actually lettered in distorted projection, backwards, on the gallery ceiling. Alessandrini has calculated her effect so that the stretched letters not only appear perfectly proportioned and right-reading in the video image, but they also appear dematerialized, so that they hover in space – no matter that we know they are merely painted on the ceiling. The “miracle” is created using visual trickery straight out of the golden age of Italian art, but here it’s used both to create a shotgun marriage of low-tech and hi-tech illusions, while at the same time gently mocking the modern tourist’s passion to collect “I was there” snapshots. In fact, when one shifts their head in the screen, another set of letters appear spelling out “I Am Here” in anamorphic perspective, in the exact spot where one’s head had been. Clever!
The paintings of Josh Keyes are also clever (and impeccably crafted), but they’re didactic, even preachy. Allesandrini tweaks our assumptions and attitudes as well, but she has a much lighter touch; sometimes a tickle can get our attention more effectively than a slap.