In celebration of Earth Day, Portland-based contemporary artist Josh Keyes offers of a grim look at the future of a lonesome planet left behind. Goodbye pictures a graffiti-battered whale bidding farewell to a society that failed to protect it.
Keyes’ work often imagines wild animals reclaiming spaces once occupied by humans, highlighting the long-term environmental consequences of unchecked capitalism and urban decay. Drawing narratives that are at once unsettling and hopeful, Keyes reminds us that someone, or something, will have to deal with our mess when we’re gone.
In our exclusive interview, we asked the artist about his inspiration for the piece, coping with a global pandemic, and digging Golden Girls.
1xRUN: Tell us a little bit about this piece, anything immediate you would like to highlight?
Josh Keyes: Goodbye is a dark comedy, hinting with a serious tongue in cheek at our precarious relationship with the natural world.
1x: How did the idea and execution come about?
Keyes: I enjoy working with ocean themes and I had an itch to paint a whale underwater. I wasn’t sure if it would have graffiti or not, or some other element or indication of a human relationship gone wrong. That’s not to say that I personally feel that graffiti stands for demise or disrespect. To me, it is more like an angry or loud thought bubble. Kind of a cathartic human tantrum, but it does read as a kind of emotional scarification of territorial markmaking in urban environments. The whale is represented, for the most part, as a peaceful entity in many folk legends, and evokes an old soul sort of feeling for many people.
This image sat on the backburner in my imagination for a while. I felt sad thinking about it. Eventually I just had to paint it, get it out of my system, kind of like a personal exorcism. I feel it is a strong image, and with my work, I really try to find a balance between the absurd and the sublime. The title, Goodbye, is the tail waving farewell to humanity, and humanity to the whale, the natural world.
I think it is a reminder of the natural beauty that we are losing every day, as well as a reminder of how hard we have to fight to preserve it. But I don’t know if it will go well with your living room sofa.
1x: What materials were used to create the original piece?
Keyes: I used Golden acrylic paint on birch wood panel, 2019. I created this painting for the my 2019 show with Thinkspace at Moniker UK.
1x: How long did this piece take to create from start to finish?
Keyes: I usually start by doing a lot of image searching on image stock sites. Once I find an initial image, something that has a solid punch to it, I begin altering it by adding or subtracting elements until it falls in line with my conceptual vision. The painting process can take anywhere from a week to a month, depending on the level of detail.
This painting is different from some of my other whale paintings in that the whale is underwater. Some of the other paintings I have done feature only the tail descending into the waves.
1x: Describe this piece in one gut reaction word.
1x: These are strange and uncertain times we are living in –– how have things changed for you over the last few months?
Keyes: As a parent of a five year-old, it is pretty terrifying. My daughter is in this beautiful bubble of unicorns and fairies, so when I play with her, I try hard not to look out the window at all of the people wearing masks. I try hard not to check the latest news, holding back the tears. What is going on in the world is like living or waking to a nightmare. Not knowing how long this will last, or the endless repercussions affecting so many around the world, with no time to process emotionally, mentally. Trapped in the sensation of shock and awe. I think everyone is hoping that a vaccine is found, and that families, communities, small businesses can return to some form of normalcy. And anything that comes from Trump’s mouth makes me sick.
1x: Has anything remained normal? Are you spending more or less time in the studio?
Keyes: I have found it challenging to work. Much of what is going on––visions of vacant city streets with wild animals roaming free––feels like many paintings I have made. I’m not sure how this will affect my future work, but I am definitely absorbing the energy and tension in the world, waiting for it to gestate & transform into new imagery.
1x: What artists are inspiring you these days?
Keyes: There are many, just to name a few that folks might enjoy:
Scott Listfield, Aron Wiesenfeld, Chris Austin, Jan Erichsen, Josie Morway, DapperMouth, Dulk1, Moon Patrol, Casey Weldon, Alvaro Naddeo, Rogan Brown, Gregory Hergert, Lisa Ericson, Stephanie Buer… and lots of others. I try to feature a few artists’ work on my Instagram feed.
1x: What music and TV have you been digging lately?
Keyes: Golden Girls, True and the Rainbow Kingdom (my daughter’s new favorite), and that crazy Tiger King documentary on Netflix, WTF!!!!
Prior to all this insanity, I was digging the films of Jordan Peele––so good. I was listening to the audiobook Mountain Man by Keith Blackmore, but it was too close to current events. Still a good listen.
1x: What advice would you give to a fan during these tumultuous times?
Keyes: Wash your hands, wear a mask, and be good to yourself and others. When you feel it, have a good cry or nap or both. Do what you can to help those less fortunate.