This month, SF Station highlighted work from featured artist Michael Kerbow, known for crafting intricately patterned landscapes that foretell a darker side to modern expansion.
San Francisco-based Kerbow, who participated in ArtSpan’s Selections 2016 Juried Exhibition at the Midway Gallery in SF this past January, has been piecing together a rather foreboding body of work for the past fifteen years. Behind uniform sketches of vast cities and topographical panoramas lie traces of disarray and uncertainty that creep into his work to form an eerily urban dystopia.
And quite literally there are undercurrents to his work.
“Descent” oil on canvas, 28″ x 40
Several years ago, he developed a series closely inspired by Romantic era paintings of catastrophic and violent upheavals. After becoming disheartened with the results, he scratched them to paint new scenes over them. The result—a layered canvas that sets sprawling highways and suburban homes atop furious tidal waves and volcanic eruptions.
“I’ve sometimes used existing art throughout history as a launching pad,” said Kerbow. In some ways, this has allowed him to more readily fashion his own predictions of modern-age disasters.
Kerbow’s fanciful worlds strike a balance between the conceivable and implausible but always involves the idea that a careless chain of events that happens in the present has the power to give way to a terrible unforeseen future.
His use of vivid colors, striking highlights and downcast shadows help Kerbow create an intentional allure in each setting that will later reveal itself to have more dismal interpretations. For some, his paintings can evoke uneasiness or disgust–and that’s how he likes it.
“I’ve always been fascinated by that push-pull factor where something is beautiful but also repulsive.”
“Barrow” from Kerbow’s Consumption series, oil on canvas, 54″ x 70″
One of Kerbow’s first series, entitled “Consumption,“ captures heaps of dead fish, muddled pigs and piles of crabs. By filling the canvases to the edges, as if their bodies were taken up close with a camera, he imparts no real sense of the breadth or reason behind the numbers and leads the viewer to infer the situation could be endless and in excess.
“It’s that idea of how each successive generation throughout our lifespan is not really realizing how erratically things are changing,” said Kerbow.
Much of Kerbow’s work examines the relationship between cause and effect to prophesize grim, industrial-led future scenarios. The name for his recent series, “Portents,” was chosen cleverly, as it illustrates the potential for cities to fall to disrepair in the wake of crises like oil drilling, climate change and overpopulation
Inspired by the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament, which recounts the story of how a city’s one common language was jumbled after God discovered it had decided to build a lavish tower to the sky, Kerbow generated his own twist with “Their Refinement of the Decline.“ With it, he depicts a sinister pollution-cleaning contraption looming over the ocean to show how unintended consequences often similarly stem from the hubris of humankind.
“Their Refinement of the Decline” 48″x60″, oil on canvas
He explores the irony in the idea that society “does something and then try to fix the solution, but that causes bigger problems, and rather than making a wise choice we opt for the short solution.”
With undertones of provocation present in nearly all of his work, Kerbow might be considered an activist in his medium, sparking a conversation that’s both historically and culturally relevant, and encourages an exploration of the deeper meaning behind the distinctive elements in his art.
“One of the aspects is understanding how we are as people; we kind of want comfort and security and we make things that make life easier for ourselves, yet we don’t necessarily recognize what some of them may be doing,” he said.
“Leviathan” oil on canvas, 4’x8′
In the future, Kerbow hopes to build exposure to his work by taking his art on the road with traveling shows, as well as introduce his paintings to younger audiences who might ultimately make change and global awareness a closer reality.
+++ Visit his website to learn more about the vision and craft behind Michael Kerbow’s paintings. Also find him at Mission Artist United’s Spring Open Studios, 1890 Bryant Street. Opening reception: Friday April 15, 6:00-9:00pm, April 17-18, 12pm to 6pm.
“Meat Map I” acrylic on canvas, wood, & metal, 60×90 inches