“I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.” ~ Ray Bradbury
Josh Keyes, born in Washington 1969, received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1992 and a Master of Fine Arts in 1998. He currently lives and works in Oregon and displays his artwork through an online gallery and also numerous public and private collections throughout the world.
Keyes’ art explores environmental issues and depicts dystopian visions, embodying messages about harmful impacts humans have upon the Earth. Scrutinising the way we view animals helps us understand our own humanity. Keyes’ animal depictions do just that, forcing us to analyse the effect we have on those we share the planet with. By juxtaposing wild animals with landscapes littered with remnants of human society, Keyes’ symbolises humankind’s damaging legacy we are leaving for the future. Despite situating animals in human environments, not a single human is depicted. The broad message across the artist’s oeuvre would seem to be that humankind was the damaging influence on the Earth and its inhabitants… but it is the non-human animals that have survived. “OASIS”, below, provides the first example of this theme of wild animal survival within an urban, but human-less, landscape.
“When the reality of human atrocities toward nature and each other reach a certain level of intensity” says Keyes, “sometimes fantastic stories and imagery are useful and necessary to describe the barbarism that is felt throughout the world”. In this blog I’ll look at a collection of Keyes’ ‘fantastic imagery’ exhibited online and try to relate the way animals are represented to anthrozoology. What themes and messages are contained in his work? What makes Keyes’ art impactful and who may the message be reaching? To what extent is the artist’s fantastical dystopian future, in fact, a reality for the animals with whom we share the Earth?
The Drowned World
Environmental art is an alternative to more practical methods in the fight against human’s environmental impact. It is a form of communication “aiming to promote sustainable living through its psychological influence”. It acts as an educational tool, edifying audiences about the perils facing the natural world and, in some cases, promoting activism. Keyes’ paintings could certainly fall into the category of environmental art. “TURBULENCE” and “THE CHASE” below capture a warning message about global warming. For how many people would these images create a psychological link with ideas of climate change, melting ice caps, and rising sea levels?
Other than depictions of submerged streets, what is striking is the meeting of two seemingly incongruous animals: the polar bear of the arctic and the great white shark of the warmer ocean; the tiger of deep Asian jungles and a tropical fish from the coral reef. By including animals from different areas of the globe, Keyes’ message is clear: these disasters haven’t only affected these once-populated localities but have had far-reaching consequences on the animal kingdom. The accomplishment of these painting is that a deep message is conveyed by depicting just a few objects and two animals.
Art plays a part in challenging anthropocentric views by reversing the typical portrayals of human dominance over nature; in these encounters between shark and bear, tiger and fish, nature clearly dominates all. In ”TURBULENCE” the animals seem to size each other up for an attack and there is a clear predator/prey relationship in “THE CHASE”. Could these dynamic encounters suggest the trials of life will continue long after humankind’s demise? This challenges our often anthropocentric elitism and certainly challenges Aristotle’s ‘Great Chain of Being’, as animals have clearly ended on top.
Similar to “TURBULENCE” in theme, Keyes’ painting “SOUNDING”, with darker colours and deeper submergence, holds a sombre and mysterious air. “There are many reoccurring themes in my work,” says Keyes “one of these is a sunken, flooded forest, dreamlike and inhabited by phantom sea life”. In these paintings, lines are blurrier, light more scarce and, in ”SOUNDING”, human constructs are limited to just one thing: tombstones. The graves could be seen as signifying the end of human dominance. The fish, trees, water and, of course, the whale surrounding these tombs could just as easily imply nature’s retrieval of Earth from man.
Whales, as a pecies, are often totamised by mankind to symbolise purity and beauty. And it has been said of artistic depictions of aquatic and airborne animals that “they represent the dream of unimpeded movement through air or water: a non-human, non-pedestrian movement in the strange imaginative spaces of the animal”. Could the whale’s graceful movement over human graves be symbolic of a future where the beauty and purity of non-human animals prospers? Does the “imaginative space of the animal” dominate in this underwater scene, leaving conventional human spaces long forgotten? Even more forgotten, in the following two paintings, “GLIDER” and “PHANTOM”, Keyes’ includes no manmade objects at all, leaving his subjects to enjoy the drowned world uninhibited by the human legacy.
The Frozen World
We move from water to ice – another dystopian theme of Keyes’ artwork. Still, the message of environmental disaster is present and, again, by situating manmade objects within post-apocalyptic environments, Keyes points the finger of responsibility. The portrayal of non-human animals continues, seeming to represent both those we have affected and those that have become freed, represented in many of his frozen paintings.
In one of Keyes’ starkest painting, “A WHOLE NEW WORLD”, juxtaposition reigns. Firstly, there is clean, white snow highlighting the dirty, vandalised statue. Other than vague outlines of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the only manmade object seems to represent something vulgar. In sociology, graffiti has largely been synonymous with crime, community decline and uncleanliness. Placed next to the pure snow and symbolic power and beauty of the tiger, the legacy of mankind is portrayed here as something far less beautiful, sapped of all former power.
The second contrast is between what Disney symbolises in western culture – magic, innocence, charm – and the dystopian environment they inhabit. In Disney, animators were often told to “keep it cute”, even portraying super-predators in non-threatening ways. To have a statue of Disney himself, holding hands with his cuddly character Micky, next to five realistically drawn, powerful tigers in a blizzard is arresting. Something as iconic as the Magic Kingdom is reduced to a washed-out silhouette on the horizon, leaving only this vandalised statue to represent the magic-that-was. Even the title, a love song from Aladdin, is co-opted to describe this dystopia. Is Keyes saying that, in the harsh reality we have created, the real magic here are the tigers themselves? A man-eating predator would, in a human community, be seen as the outsider but here, in Keyes’ dystopia, it is flipped and the suggestion is that man who has become the outsider.
A final contrast is between the expected behaviour of tigers and that which is portrayed: A Whole New World depicts five tigers running, or hunting, together – yet tigers are known for their solitary behaviour. Solitary behaviour of adult tigers is, arguably, not something requiring a particularly intimate knowledge of animal behaviour, so a number of Keyes’ audience may note its unusualness. Why are so many tigers together? Has the ‘new world’ forced the tigers to adopt a new behavioural adaptation? Is the banding together of non-gregarious species symbolic of togetherness and unity, a transcendence made possible by the removal of divisive mankind? Furthermore, with no humans, the tiger’s divided nature in the eyes of man, between the dangerous wild killer and the beautiful personification of the wilderness, is removed. There is no liminality when there are no human perceptions, no other world to inhabit except the tiger’s own savage wilderness. There is no longer the question ‘Where do they belong?’ because the painting tells us: ‘they belong here’. Again, Keyes art represents both anthropological disaster and zoological emancipation.
In Keyes’ words: “These images emerged from three different sources, all having a common foundation in their emotional resonance. The three sources were political, environmental, and personal”. Significantly, the animals that Keyes chooses to depict, especially in his frozen worlds, are ‘flagship species’ that have been used to mobilise environmental messages in political and personal spheres. With the pieces below (“RED DAWN”, “GLACIER” AND “WHITE NOISE”), polar bears, wolves and rhinos have all been considered flagship species and have appeared in the 20 ‘most charismatic species’ list (as have sharks, whales and tigers featured in previous pieces). Whether consciously or sub-consciously, Keyes seems to be making artistic use of flagship species in an oft-used strategy to tackle personal, political and environmental issues. Whereas polar bears and wolves have been used in environmental messages about Polar Regions, the use of the rhino, outside of the species’ usual flagship ‘African mega-fauna’ context, may suggest that this dystopia is more far-reaching than we even imagined.
“Abandoned places speak to me of our own culture and even our bodies, eventually surrendering to the elements of time and reuniting with nature” says Keyes. In this final thematic exploration, we move away from water and ice to a world far more familiar – and for that reason perhaps even more disquieting. In many of Keyes’ paintings, wild animals inhabit far more urban scenes. Such post-apocalyptic images, of nature having conquered our concrete jungles, are more common in artistic representation than some of Keyes’ other dystopias. In the film ‘I Am Legend’, lions and antelope battle for survival in New York; Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy of novels depicts a dystopian future where the city streets are menaced by mutated wild animals; a number of other artists who share gallery space with Keyes’, who similarly depict animals in dystopia, choose urban settings. Yet Keyes seems to break the boundaries that other postmodern wildlife artists remain within, going beyond these more typical wild-animal/urban-jungle metaphors and into frozen, drowned and (as yet to be seen) stratospheric worlds. However, when Keyes does paint these urban portrayals the effects are arresting.
As art critic Sierzputowski writes: “Keyes paints hyperrealistic depictions of what he perceives the world might look like after the fall of humans. Animals such as sharks, tigers, and bulls remain as the final witnesses to the aftermath of human destruction”. Certainly in ”MAD WORLD”, the grizzly bear does seem to play the part of a witness, an onlooker – possibly even a judge. Could the title be referring not to a bear situated on a skyscraper, but to the human world the bear looks down upon? Studies have shown that elevation is psychologically linked with a perception of dominance, so could Keyes be using the bear’s position above all of the constructs of mankind as a metaphor for the dominance of non-human animals in this futuristic dystopia?
In ”PURSUIT”, the life and death struggle of wild animals is played out in a city street; blades of grass growing through the tarmac tell of the lack of a human presence for some time. Keyes does not seem to be “speaking for” the animals, there is no element of anthropomorphism; he simply depicts behaviours that would occur in the wild within an urban landscape. This displacement of the wild into the cityscape allows the viewer to simply form their own perceptions about the animals without having been humanised by the artist, a common theme in Keyes’ realistic paintings.
It has been proposed that humans can distance themselves from non-human animals by choosing to ignore characteristics in animals that suggest personhood or similarity to humans. By becoming aware of these similarities, or “egomorphising” animals, humans can gain a greater awareness and empathy with non-humans. Keyes’ artwork brings these animals (who can so often be ignored, anthropomorphised or marginalised because of their lack of immediate presence) right into the everyday landscape. This allows the viewer’s egomorphism to develop. Notice the one-way arrow on the road and that the animals are running in the opposite direction. The imposed rules and regulations of humans do not apply in this world – all that is left on display in this dystopia is the physical and emotional lives of the animals depicted. Not only is the fear and fatigue in the deer’s face, and the determination and power of the bear, rendered clearly – the fact that this emotional battle takes place in the city makes the behaviours even more impactful.
“Environmental concerns are always present in my work and lately, some of the images I have seen in the news around the world are as bizarre as any post-apocalyptic scenario” says Keyes, “I did not want to create literal depiction, but rather strive to create images that occupy symbolic, lyrical and poetic expression”. All of Keyes’ representations are metaphors, of course, but some of his pieces which combine urban life with animals are more symbolic than others. Despite their fantastical nature, in the paintings seen so far, there is always the possibility that Earth could have flooded; a change of weather pattern could have blanketed everwhere in snow – these are slightly more tangible. “DESCENT II” however, depicts a scene more unusual and more difficult to secure in reality.
In ”DESCENT II” Keyes is not literally saying that a wale has been captured and subjected to graffiti. Rather, the graffitied tail is a representation of the destructive and vulgar impact that humans have on the natural environment. Again, Keyes has taken a graffiti, a symbolic representation of moral decline, and whales, a flagship symbol of the beauty and fragility of nature, and used them together to send a message to his audience. This metaphorical theme occurs numerously in Keyes’ work, such as in ”HAMMERED” and “SPRAY” below.
In other paintings, Keyes’ metaphors are slightly less obvious. For example, in ”LAST LIGHT” the initial focus is, of course, the sleeping lion. Yet there are numerous subtle metaphors about human decline if we look. Notice the broken telephone wires: could this be the lost human connections between each other and the loss of any connection to our planet? The rib cage, too, has a sinister, human appearance to it: another symbol of the dominance of nature over humankind? The lion himself sleeps across disused tyre tracks: the disregard of human authority? And, finally, the setting sun itself. The human city, as with Disney’s magic Kingdom in “A WHOLE NEW WORLD”, is marginalised to the background. The biggest metaphor may be in the paintings title and in the dying rays of light over the human landscape; the sun has set on the age of humans and it is now time for non-human animals to reign and, as the lion shows, to be at peace.
“For me, the symbolic elements in these paintings allows for a personal and poetic expression, a catharsis in making sense of current events and the concern for the future for all living things” says Keyes. So, as well as Keyes own artistic expression, to what extent is his dystopian future a potential reality? Can we conclude that his work is truly representative of human and non-human prospects?
The answer depends on the viewer’s belief in two messages: 1) that an anthropogenic catastrophe will occur and 2) that non-human animals (especially the species depicted) survive. The probability of point 1, in academic reports, is high. Increased snowstorms during climate change, rising sea levels and the increasing potential of nuclear war are all possibilities. Point 2, however, is arguably open for greater debate. “The work always makes you think; did the animals win? Did Mother Nature conquer? Did really anything or anyone become the victor in the human’s demise?”. Juxtapoz Art and Culture blog ask a good question here – can animals ‘win’? By the time a future arrives that witnesses mankinds end, the survival of many of the charismatic animals in Keyes’ work seems unlikely.
Josh Keyes artistic representations of ecological concerns depict a human dystopia, certainly, but in doing so they depict an animal utopia. The audience may find themselves hoping for outcomes against their own species. If the outcome of Keyes’ paintings is to be desired (the continuation of these beautifully painted species) then humans must become absent. Ultimately, we do not know. Animal futures hang in the balance; in a limbo where the whole world’s human population decides their future. Do they wake up to freedom, or are they forever lost in darkness? Perhaps, then, the painting below, “FOREVER AND EVER” is the most meaningful of Keyes’ metaphors.
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