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The New Contemporary Art Magazine

Time Traveling with Painters Mike Davis and Michael Kerbow

We live in strange times. History seems to be repeating itself: with rising populism and conflicts in the same areas about the same issues, with horrendous humanitarian results. And while science makes enormous leaps, there exists a rising tide of people who, no matter the evidence or trusted source, still believe the Earth is flat. Many more don’t believe there is proper evidence of a climate crisis. Meanwhile, in the visual arena, surrealism seems under attack; AI engines, whose unscrupulous fans utilize to type near-unimaginable imagery into existence in seconds on a whim, are generating piles of “likes” on social media. Their near-efforts create forgettable results which satiate the dopamine levels, while simultaneously appeasing their algorhythmic overlords. Again, strange times.     

And so, in the context of this exhaustive dry heave of a time period in which we call our present day, it’s refreshing to examine the paintings of Mike Davis and Michael Kerbow. Both are actual painters who share a love for history that is not fleeting. Both have mastered their craft which enable them to present carefully thought out original works that, while remixing history and present day, are human. While their paintings are calculated, they are not cold. They tap into human feelings and existential threats to humanity, brought to life with narratives, using actual paint, time, craft and humor.

You can see their work in person with your own human eyes, at 111 Minna Gallery this April, in their respective solo shows there. We were able to interview both artists for a Hi-Fructose interview.

Let’s start with Michael Kerbow:

Michael, your allegorical paintings present themes of disaster and climate change. While it is an existential threat, is there any hope for humanity, at all?

I suppose my honest answer is I try to be hopeful, but I fear things are going to get a lot worse before they improve.  I used to be more optimistic about the situation.  I thought we would have made more significant changes by now.  But with each passing year, it seems we continue along this path of rampant consumption and excess.  And the people profiting from the way things are, have little incentive to change.  We are rapidly transforming the planet.  Disrupting ecosystems, driving species into extinction, and filling the world with plastic. The list goes on.  And it’s said we’ve pumped enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by now that, even if we were to pivot and stop all emissions, the climate will continue to grow warmer.  Not to be such a downer, but I think it’s becoming frick’n serious.  This is why I am so compelled to voice my concerns through my art.

In the end humans will probably manage to muddle through this mess.  I just feel it’s unfortunate.  We could have spared ourselves, and the planet, a lot of hardship if we had simply made wiser decisions years ago.  That being said, today’s young generation gives me hope.  They seem to recognize how dire this is becoming.  I hope they are able to keep our species from going over a cliff.

Bring on the Dinosaurs! It’s hard not to notice the prevailing dinosaur in your latest body of work. Coupled with a dystopian near-future, these enormous creatures are seen stomping their way through iconic capitalistic symbols, including gas stations…

Yeah, these prehistoric creatures are meant to symbolize the violent forces we’ve unleashed upon the earth.  They’re basically a visual representation of an abstract concept like climate change.  A century and half of pumping carbon into the atmosphere was bound to have some negative consequences.  We’ve effectively liberated these ghosts from the past, and now the dinosaurs are wrecking havoc upon our world.  We have manifested this problem upon ourselves.

The Pterodactyls seem to have found a perfect home in the dilapidated Chevron station though…

Well, that’s just a humorous take on my belief that the earth will be fine in the end.  In spite of our species ecological impact upon the planet, nature will adapt, and life will go on.  Whether or not we are a part of that future is still unclear…

…I’ve always thought plastic dinosaur toys were meta art objects of and by themselves. The dino toys are molded with plastic which comes from oil, which wouldn’t be possible without fossil fuels… and the dinosaurs! I get that same feeling with your paintings, seeing the dinosaurs confront the gas stations…

You know, I hadn’t considered that angle about toy dinosaurs made of plastic.  But you’re right.  Our society is awash with plastic.

I’m particularly drawn to the painting of the buried car piles, stacked and sort of decomposing ever-so-slowly, well below the earth’s surface. How did they get there?

I think of that painting as a parable about consequences, or the concept of “cause and effect”.  Those cars, all clustered together, represent our society’s legacy of fossil fuel consumption.  Now, just to be clear, I have nothing against cars.  I think they are useful.  They allow us to move about, and assist our ability to conduct commerce.  It’s just that our current paradigm is not sustainable.  So the cars you see here are being subsumed by a radically changed world, a world transformed by our addiction to fossil fuels.

The dinos seem to be thriving in this particular painting…

Yeah, I call the painting “Reversal of Fortune”.  Because our actions have freed these dinosaurs from beneath the ground, they now get to cavort around the surface, causing all sorts of environmental havoc, like catastrophic floods and droughts, and turning the planet into a hothouse.  Of course the irony is now it’s the cars which are entombed in the earth.

A century and half of pumping carbon into the atmosphere was bound to have some negative consequences.

Does this cycle of time/extinction continue forever?

There’s no certainty that humans will always be around.  As a matter of fact, I think science says that over 99% of all species of lifeforms that have ever existed, over the history of this planet, have gone extinct.  I fully expect our species will eventually become yet another layer of fossilized remains in the geologic strata of the earth.

The mix of dinos in this show and (now abandoned) cars tap into your childhood fascinations, but now  for different reasons perhaps?

Certainly.

As an adult, does depicting these ancient lizard chickens in your paintings give you an immense joy, aside from the obvious themes of world-wide destruction of humanity?

Haha, yes!  Well I suppose not only are these paintings a way for to me vent my concerns about the world, but they also allow me to rekindle and revel in some fond memories from my childhood.  Dinosaurs were a big obsession for me as a kid.  I guess I’m trying to recapture some of that excitement I felt conjuring these imaginary worlds in my young mind.  I find it kind of surprising that dinosaurs didn’t start making an appearance in my art until very recently.

Interestingly, I have discovered dinosaurs to be an effective metaphor to utilize in my art.  They allow me to explore serious issues in a novel way.  Humor and whimsy can go a long way towards engaging with an audience.  No one wants to be confronted with bleak, depressing art.  So the question is, if I wish to explore sobering subject matter like climate change in my art, how do I make people receptive to looking at it?  The dinosaurs therefore function as a device to lure in my audience, so they can hopefully contemplate the ecological themes contained in my work.

There’s a long history of artists and illustrators who have attempted to capture their majesty using science as a guide. how has artists like Charles R. Knight, Rudolph Zallinger, and Zdeněk Burian influenced your work? 

When I was very young, I remember seeing a reproduction of Zallinger’s “The Age of Reptiles” in a book.  The painting depicts a chronological panorama of prehistoric creatures millions of years ago.  That picture was one of my favorite works of art as a kid.  Fast forward many years later, to around the time of the pandemic.  I decided to appropriate and rework this well-loved image, and create a painting that would function as a critique about modern capitalism and our society’s penchant for rampant consumerism. The use of dinosaurs seemed apropos as they represent ecological extinction.  While developing my concept, it quickly grew to become an entire body of new work.  By now I’ve created a large number of paintings, based upon illustrations by paleoartists like Zalinger, Knight, and Burian.  In a way, it’s my way of paying homage to these amazing artists who inspired me as a kid.

And now, let’s speak with Mike Davis:

Mike, your work has always been surreal, and the imagery usually takes place in a Flemish masters-inspired word. Why does this particular time period of painting serve as a setting for you to mutate/disturb/extrapolate from. Is it the particularly confined/ crusty state of the society of the time depicted in that kind of painting or a comment on the reverence we (more specifically institutions and museums) have of the paintings and painters of that period?

I’ve always been fascinated with history and art. I’m particularly attracted to medieval and renaissance art mostly because of the look and the world it depicts. There’s an underlying “creepiness“ to it. And, of course, it’s an extremely interesting period in history (to me).

Do you wish you could go back and time and blow those painter’s minds?

I think if I were to go back in time I think it would blow my mind rather than the reverse. I could never achieve the level of expertise these artists attained… without electric lights, the internet or glasses. I don’t think I would last long there.

I Imagine they would hang you for witchcraft for your “strange prophetic statements”, anyhow. Your painting in your solo show “ Always Looking the Other Way” appears at first to be a pleasant scenario. At very first glance, a young man plays a fiddle, another man is praying. Everyone is outside of a store or tavern.. But then! On closer inspection, you realize that the tavern sign says “El Hombre Mono”/The Ape Man, that the man is meditating with a strange metaphysical book, there’s a guy smoking a spliff, and there’s an alien craft that has crashed in the distance; all the while a skeleton’s arm pokes out around a try with a half-eaten apple… Can you tell us more about this scenario?

“Always looking the other way” contains multiple stories within the bigger story. The meanings are personal and boring so I generally let the art speak for itself and let the viewer concoct their own narrative- it’s more fun that way… 

…in it, there’s a Madonna and Child painting, which is nailed to a tree,  Mary appears to be holding an alien baby Jesus!

In “Jonah Inside the Whale” there seems to be a who colony of neglected people inside the whale’s body. Other than the setting, it’s not filled with obvious elements from other times (like iphones). Seems like ‘ol Jonah never made it out?

“Jonah and the whale” was an interesting departure from what I’ve been doing.  It’s an awfully big whale so he needed some company…it’s a homeless encampment. We all know Jonah gets out but what about the rest?

We all know Jonah gets out but what about the rest?

There are so many wonderful details in your paintings; they are populated with so many background characters. Do you assign roles and personalities for these characters or are they more like NPCs? 

All the characters in my paintings are there for a reason – all part of the story and nothing is random.

In addition to being a painter, you are a musician, woodworker, and owner of a tattoo shop. Do you find it difficult to balance these endeavors, or is it because of these varied activities, that you actually find balance?

I’ve always been an artist and musician and, in general, love to create things. Yes, my world is very busy but life is shorter than we realize and it’s important to me to create and contribute as much as I possibly can to the world with the hope that it brings some enjoyment or inspiration to others.  People ask me how I have time for everything – I make the time. 

Mike Davis’ “Survivors of the Plague” and Michael Kerbow’s “Reversal of Fortune” opens Friday April 12th at 111 Minna Gallery  in San Francisco.

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