Visual Art

Portland Artist Josh Keyes Paints a Beastly City

Foxes, rhinos, and bears push up against the built environment in Keyes's wild paintings.

By Fiona McCann February 26, 2019 Published in the March 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

It’s SE Division Street—you can tell by the smudged green street sign in the foreground—but not Division Street as you know it. Instead of Bollywood Theater or Eb & Bean, the familiar Portland sign is plunked in a forest of deep green fir near a fox perched on a mossy log, no sign of human life save a rusty USPS mailbox in the foreground and a wireless telephone mast in the distant mist. 

This is the work of Tacoma-born artist Josh Keyes, and he’s been painting the interface between nature and urban living in bright acrylic on wood for much of his 49 years. He moved to Portland from Oakland eight years ago, and it was only a matter of time before our city began to feature in his work.

“There’s an energy here that seems very unique and very special and very rare,” he says. “When I arrived, I wanted to make work that called to that.”

Keyes paints animals—think grizzly bears, galloping rhinos, wild horses, battling tigers—in incongruous environs, their wild and realistically rendered forms pushing up against urban, man-made elements, from buildings to roads to subway steps.

“A lot of my anxiety about the state of the environment and our relationship to it feeds into the work,” he says, “but I try to personalize it, mythologize it in some way so it’s not just an advertisement for global warming.”

Putting in pieces of Portland had a purpose: Keyes wanted people to have a kind of “Whoa, I’ve been there” flash. “That arrested moment that kind of takes you out of your comfort zone,” he says. “With the familiar landmarks, that’s sort of the intent I was going for.” Keyes even incorporated local graffiti in his work for a while, presenting spaces at once familiarly contemporary and eerily dystopian. But pushback from the artists behind the original tags created what he calls an “interesting dialogue,” and Keyes no longer includes recognizable local graffiti in his art.

Keyes’s newer pieces—he’s got a show at Northeast’s Talon Gallery next month (April 25–May 26)—continue the dialogue with his own anxieties, but pin us in a moment of pivotal change. “Like a contemporary tarot card” is how he describes the work, “images that speak to something internal but have some relevance to a cycle of change in life. Who we are and where we are and what we’re doing.”

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