As a result, wrecked cars, empty spaces and graffiti tags are some common themes, which the artist utilizes in order to give the impression of decline and desolation. The last remaining inhabitants of the earth are animals, which have now taken over the spaces, dominated in the past by humans. His work displays a version of our world that has suffered from the interventional activity of humans.
This is Keyes’s mythology and bleak vision. Through his work, he satirizes the apathy of humans in front of the progressive destruction of the planet. Global warming, air pollution and the pollution of the oceans are some of the issues that Keyes is ironically addressing in his work. According to the artist, the price for our indifference is the extinction of our species. With the vanishing of humans, the isolated landscapes over time are being devoured by vegetation or are being overgrown underwater.
Graffiti is one of the last remaining pieces of evidence of the former human presence. Therefore, graffiti in the art of Keyes has an iconographic significance, because it entails the connotation that we, humans, used to be here, but not anymore. This realization is provocative yet alarming and reveals the interest of the artist in expressing his personal views on the matter of environmental crisis. When asked about the incorporation of graffiti in his work, the artist commented the following: “I find graffiti around town in Portland, Oregon. Sometimes I try my hand at a tag but I’m not that great. I try to find graffiti that is lyrical, almost like abstract painting, it has a charge. I do alter the colors of the tags to create harmonic relationships with the imagery.”
His art is based on a striking antithesis. The fuse realism makes the viewer identify the imagery and feel familiar with it. On the other hand, surrealism plays a satirical role and triggers a feeling of anxiety, as we witness familiar landscapes turn into a deformed dystopia, a post-apocalyptic reality. This bizarre and incompatible juxtaposition of the natural and the unnatural, the manmade is used as Keyes’s way of expressing his preoccupation about the current global climate change and the human impact on the environment.
This preoccupation is highlighted through the display of animals lost and displaced from their natural settings. They are in peril and away from their natural ecosystem, relocated in dioramic fantastical situations. “The animals emerge from the pages of my sketchbook sometimes as singular studies occupying a diagrammatic space, while others wander through dystopian landscapes like specimens or dioramas from a mysterious museum of natural history.", he says.
Keyes is sceptical about the urban sprawl and the impact it has on nature is his intention is to bring up this question: What can the future bring if humans continue to encroach on our rural surroundings? The answer the artist provides is his work, which is based on the idea that our planet is an intricate system and the presence of humans can prove irreversibly decisive for the future of the earth. In other words, his work reflects his ideas on today’s environmental decay: “The work is bizarre and creepy, that is how I feel about the world these days. The ideas behind the work are a combination of personal experiences and public, political, environmental concerns. Many pieces/images are like pages from a diary, others are direct response to the headlines in today's newspaper.”
The theoretical context of his work is connected to mythological and folklore themes –especially the legends and stories of Native Americans- and the imagery that exists between dreams and nightmares in order to express a profound existential anxiety and uncertainty. In the dystopia of Keyes nature interacts with the urban life in an abstract and unsettling way, which aesthetically reminisces scientific textbook illustrations and anatomical diagrams.
At the same time, one of the biggest influences of the artist is reality itself. “My work continues to evolve and grow and echo's the events in my life and in the world around me. I think of the work as an imaginary world or story that is based in reality.”. After all, he was raised in Tacoma, Washington, and he witnessed the decimation of the surrounding forests by the logging industry. As a result, contemporary events are, also, a source of inspiration for Keyes and are connected to his sensitivity regarding environmental issues.
The hybrid world that Keyes has created steps on surrealism and photorealism, a mix that unsettles the viewers, making us feel unsafe and exposed to an uncertain and mischievous future. At the core of work exists the concern for our survival and the earth's future. His work is complex and highly personal and echos the influence of sci-fi movies, dystopic novels, folklore and contemporary issues and events. The result is an alarming yet captivating juxtaposition between the natural and the man-made, which rightfully establishes Josh Keyes as one of the most iconic eco-surrealist artists of our time.