Josh Keyes' 'Surface Tension' Confronts Pollution at Hang Art

In March, the small city of Cordova, Alaska, erected a totem pole that depicts the distorted face of former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond. Technically, the totem is a "shame pole," a traditional way of publicly embarrassing someone who has failed to admit to a wrong or pay a debt. On the Cordova shame pole, Raymond sports a Pinocchio nose — "So kids can figure out he's a liar," the carver told the local paper. Oakland-based artist Josh Keyes' paintings serve a similar cathartic function. Keyes grew up in Tacoma, Wash., a city shrouded in rain, Native American mythology, and the "Tacoma Aroma," a sulfur smell produced by the paper mills that dot the tide flats. This childhood geography offers a key to his work, in which animals, often sliced or mutated, inhabit fragmented, diorama-like landscapes. Deer heads, the kind usually seen mounted on a wall, walk upside-down on their antlers along littered city streets. A killer whale cuts through a field from beneath with its dorsal fin. A surveillance camera mounted on a stump watches two fish in a river. A polar bear sleeps at the bottom of the ocean. With these disturbing, finely detailed acrylic paintings, Keyes creates totems for a new age, connecting the viewer to the normally abstract shame of environmental degradation.

 
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