In These Paintings, the Earth Gets Tagged Out

Josh Keyes’s images of graffitied wilderness reflect a profound sense of environmental anxiety.

May 11, 2017

"Descent"

Josh Keyes

The image of a whale’s tail covered in graffiti may exaggerate humanity’s impact on the natural world—but only just. A recent study of the Mariana Trench turned up scads of pollutants in the most unexplored habitat on the planet. The sentiment, at least, evoked by Josh Keyes’s hyperrealistic painting is spot on: People have left their (unflattering) mark on even the most hard-to-reach places on earth . . . and beyond.

Much of the artist’s previous work features the natural and unnatural colliding in unexpected and disturbing ways—a tiger lounging atop a Dumpster, for example, or a great white shark bursting forth from a slab of road. His new series of paintings, which prominently features graffiti in surprising places, carries this dystopian mash-up a step further.

"Tin Can"

Josh Keyes

In addition to spray-painted flukes and an iceberg bearing the message “I’ll melt with you,” Keyes has painted images of spacecraft, hundreds of miles above the surface of our blue dot, tagged by egocentric earthlings. More on-point messages include a bubble-lettered “OZONE” next to a satellite’s NASA insignia, and “Houston, we are the problem” scrawled across a dilapidated rocket. Stephen Hawking may say human survival depends on colonizing a new planet, but Keyes’s dark visions imagine our bad habits following us into the final frontier.

The artist, who’s based in Portland, Oregon, says his latest series is rooted in a deep-set anxiety about “the future of the planet and everything that lives on it.” For Keyes, exaggerating current environmental and political issues “to an absurd degree” is a way to express this sense of unease shared by so many. “Part of me would like to paint ‘happy trees,’” Keyes says. “But my work is, and always has been, a vehicle for catharsis.”

"I'll Melt With You"

Josh Keyes

Keyes understands all too well that the difficult themes he explores can make his work unsettling to look at. “These paintings are not always easy to paint,” he says. “Sometimes they can bring me to tears.”

But don’t let his portentous pictures of the world fool you. Keyes isn’t purely pessimistic about our future. “The recent political activism here in the United States, and also abroad, is a sign that people are dissatisfied and vocalizing the need for change,” he says. “The realization that a postapocalyptic future is now a real possibility fills one with dread and also the courage to act and live consciously for an alternative future."

Keyes’s work will be on display at the Thinkspace Gallery in Los Angeles in August.

"Frontier"

Josh Keyes


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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