In his wonderfully titled 2007 best-seller, The World Without Us, author Alan Weisman pondered what would happen to Earth without humans.
If we were not around to maintain them, how soon would our buildings crumble? When would the forest creep back in and obliterate our cities? Would all traces of human life vanish?
Painter Josh Keyes asks some of the same questions in his dystopian artworks at the Joseph Gross Gallery. Above and Below, a show of 24 of his disquieting paintings and prints, is one of two solo exhibitions now in the UA arts complex. Each of them looks at the environment—and destruction—in very different ways.
Keyes paints eerie scenes of urban decay—cracked sidewalks, weeds pushing through asphalt, mailboxes and stop signs covered with graffiti—in cities where humans have mysteriously disappeared. In their place are the wild animals the departed humans so recently oppressed.
Birds, elephants, lions, tigers and bears have the run of the despoiled cities. Meticulously painted in a hyper-realism that mimics scientific illustration, they gallop down streets, swim around decaying statues and plod down broken highways.
"Stampede," a big acrylic on canvas, pictures an eclectic herd hurrying down a deteriorating street where a blue sedan lies crushed and overturned. A bighorn sheep, airborne, leaps over the car; a wolf runs past it; a hawk flies over it. Joining in the rush to the right are an elk; a fox; a deer family of doe, stag and fawn; and a multispecies flock of birds: hummingbirds, hawks, bluebirds and crows. (Keyes appears to be making good use of field guides to render the animals accurately.)
Right under the street is a water world, an underground tank where an orca whale is swimming purposefully along, in tandem with the animals running overhead. Its great fin slices through the sidewalk above, doing some damage of its own.
In this ironic post-apocalyptic vision, wild beasts thrive in a world that supposedly civilized humans have destroyed. Keyes, who has an MFA from Yale and who lives in Portland, Ore., writes that the works are a "hybrid of eco-surrealism and dystopian folktales that express a concern for our time and the Earth's future."
Some of the works are pointed about the risks we run by wasting our water, by polluting with oil, by failing to deal with climate change. "Sirens" pictures a cracked statue of George Washington. The father of our nation holds out one hand, evidently making a point in a speech, not realizing that he's partly underwater. Two seals flip through the water in which he's submerged, in a world, no doubt, where the polar ice caps have already melted.
Not all of Keyes' critiques are purely environmental. "The Cerberus Project," a giclée print, savages one of the worst monuments of our civilization: the deadly Southwest border wall, which damages the earth and humans alike. Taking its name from the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of hell in the ancient world, "Cerberus" shows the wall in all its ugliness. The corrugated metal slab is scarred with graffiti and painted with an image of a familiar traffic sign, but depicting a migrant family—dad, mom, daughter—running for their lives.
A three-headed tiger, a variant on the dog of Hades, apparently is charged with eliminating any migrants who survive the crossing. One satisfied tiger head eyes an abandoned blue sneaker lying on the ground; another licks a large human bone.
A gifted and serious artist, Keyes is wildly, even crazily imaginative. He paints animals, he said in an interview with Chased) magazine, because he believes they stir in us a "sleeping instinctive nature within."
"Guardian IV" may be trying to summon up that instinct. Two giant human hands are crossed, one atop of the other. On the upper hand, in sunlight, is a Sonoran Desert scene, where tiny saguaros and prickly pear are thriving. Miniature wild horses gallop through the desert, and a coyote presides in the distance, on top of the giant's wrist. On the bottom hand, in shadow, is a northern landscape of pines and grass where a big brown bear walks along.
In Keyes' hand painting, this idyllic scene, so full of possibility, is literally within our grasp. If the vanishing humans don't do something to save it, we may end up more along the lines of his "Ark 1." In this painting, a beautiful little snapshot of nature—deer at a lake, sloping green hills, soaring birds—has been stuffed inside a giant torpedo. It's been fired off into space, and it's on its way to destruction.
Across the way, at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, another MFA is also looking at the environment. He's even another Josh.
But Joshua Olivera's style is lush and loose, whereas Keyes' is flat and meticulous, and he favors abstraction where Keyes is realistic. Keyes nearly always uses a background of pure white, the better to highlight his animal dioramas, while Olivera uses a mash-up of materials in his 18 works on display, including wood stains and other chemicals, to color the rough boards he uses as canvas.
A native of Chico, Calif., Olivera got his degree at the California State University at Chico, and his horizontal mixed-media paintings evoke the region's flat agricultural landscape. A small gem, "Rhine Papier," a mixed media on paper, conveys the land's bands of colors—its grays, ambers and blues, and the rich red-brown earth. In a show in 2007 at Tucson's Gallery at Sixth and Sixth, curated by Lauren Rabb (now the UAMA curator), Olivera even added pieces of metal to his paintings to suggest farming tools.
This time around, in Palimpsest: An Image of What Once Was, he concentrates on the old farm buildings that have gradually disappeared from the landscape.
Architects, he writes, use the term "palimpsest" for ghostly traces of disappeared buildings, for the "tarred rooflines (that) remain on the sides of a building long after the neighboring structure has been demolished; (for) removed stairs (that) leave a mark ..."
Olivera conjures up lost structures by adding transparent resin to his surfaces, suggesting the outlines of a barn that once was, or a house that has tumbled back to the earth. "Never Give an Inch," of resin, wood and steel, has a trapezoidal swath of resin rising like a barn from the foreground, past the horizon and into a sky of a hallucinatory green-blue. But the building is see-through, a thing of the past.
"We'll Build the Perfect Ship #2" is a long, narrow vertical, a diptych on wood that relies on layers of color to suggest an accumulation of years. Loosely painted in a variety of materials, it layers lovely grays and ochres over plywood, sometimes allowing the pale wood to show through.
The painting is like the walls of an old farmhouse, where we can peer through layers of paint, imagining the people who lived there, long ago, in a world without us.