When a contemporary art website recently asked artist Michael Kerbow what one piece of art from the world’s collections he would like to own, he was quick with his answer: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel, with Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death a close second. Take a look at Kerbow’s work – especially his three series Aberrations, Portents, and Transgressions – and the influence is obvious. Like the sixteenth-century Flemish artist who also painted Icarus falling from the sky, Kerbow paints in-your-face allegories that illustrate the danger of humanity’s hubris and our capacity for self-deception. Kerbow says his paintings “try to reveal the dichotomy that may exist between what we desire and what we manifest.” We say we want to live in paradise, but actually we inhabit an industrial purgatory.
The inhuman scale of industrial civilization fascinates and frustrates Kerbow, and he’s at his best when showing how human technology can run amok. One painting depicts a spaghetti-like mass of packed freeways, suggesting that we’re going in circles or are lost in a maze of our own making. Another imagines a city so vast that it has become a kind of black hole consuming itself. A clump of automobiles is rendered as a beehive, a symbol of society’s swarm-mind. In the sardonically titled Their Refinement of the Decline, a very Brueghel-looking tower of pipes and smokestacks looms over the city below. The point of the fable is clear. We build, we shape, we create – and then we end up being swallowed by our own creations.
There’s nothing subtle about Kerbow’s canvases; a painting of an ominous open pit mine, for example, is titled Fool’s Gold. Perhaps the obviousness is part of the message. By now the gargantuan scale of human ambition has become so darkly comical – so clearly self-defeating – that there’s no sense in making fun of it stealthily. If you’re going to satirize the ginormous overreach of our industrial society, you have to go big and bold yourself.
Kerbow is plain about his intentions. “My painting portrays the folly of man,” he says. “We seem to be in an orgiastic race, digging ever deeper, without awareness of how unsustainable this rate of consumption is.” With a smirk and a nudge – a careful combination of bemusement and outrage – Kerbow’s paintings are helping to raise a notch higher the awareness of our predicament.
Michael Kerbow’s work has been exhibited at galleries throughout North America. Some of his paintings will appear in a multi-artist show, “Reimagining Progress,” at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California through September 4. You can view more of his work at www.michaelkerbow.com.\