San Francisco painter Michael Kerbow wants to make art that matters. Indeed, the artist says it’s easy enough to make art to decorate someone’s wall — but that it can also explore important issues and communicate critical ideas.
“I make art about environmental challenges like climate change, plastic pollution, and habitat destruction because I am very concerned about how we are transforming the earth,” he told 48hills. Because he believes that we are not only jeopardizing the health of the planet but our very future on it, his paintings aim to distill what he sees happening today and what possibly awaits us tomorrow.
Kerbow grew up in the eastern half of the US and came to San Francisco in 1993, when he was hired to be the lead artist for a digital retouching boutique catering to ad agencies and commercial photographers. As a painter, his work is earnest, wry, and imaginative, even while tackling pressing issues. The juxtaposition of images draw the viewer’s attention quickly and curiously. What are we looking at exactly? Those are dinosaurs … but is that a Walmart? An astute observer will get it; This is our future, not our past — and our potential extinction is a troubling issue worth serious consideration.
In fact, Kerbow’s painting “Highwater” has gained a lot of attention lately. After posting an image of the painting on his Instagram page, he noticed a spurt of interest and engagement. Within a couple of days, it had a huge upswell of comments from two camps of people discussing the issue of climate change — those touting the science and those who say it is not real. As of this writing, the post has over a half million likes and climbing — including one from actor John Leguizamo — and nearly 4,000 comments, which is way more than the metrics Kerbow says he normally sees. (For perspective, the artist’s posts typically receive 100 to 300 likes and two to 20 comments.) The numbers make it clear that this is a topic on people’s minds — and that Kerbow’s paintings are sparking heated debate.
For the past decade, Kerbow has had an art studio at 1890 Bryant Street, a large industrial building in the inner Mission. The structure was formerly a Best Foods mayonnaise factory, but now contains creative studios for over 100 artists and craftspeople. A large workspace with high ceilings and lots of natural light allows Kerbow to work on several large-scale paintings at a time. He jumps from piece to piece, depending on what requires his attention on a given day. With an iPod full of music or an audiobook queued up, Kerbow gets to it, sketching out ideas for new pieces, then working primarily with oil on canvas and occasionally with acrylics, telling the stories he deems necessary and salient.
His fictional landscapes are allegories about industrialized society; sprawling cities to illustrate our expanding presence upon the natural world, cars and freeways indicative of our fossil fuel-driven economy. A recurring theme is thickets of billboards displaying the word “MORE” that signify our consumption ethos. “This word repeats in my work, like a mantra for capitalism; the driving force behind all we do as a society,” Kerbow said.
While the artist says 2020 was a terrible year all around, it didn’t hamper his creativity in any significant way. If anything, it probably made him more prolific.
“The lockdown basically compelled me to stay in my studio and paint all the time,” Kerbow said. “I’m grateful I had this outlet during this period of time, as it kept me sane.” This year, he has been working on a series of paintings titled “Late Capitalism” that portray the resurrection of dinosaurs, with scenes of the giant reptiles overrunning our world.
The new series is intended as a critique of our economy, of hyper-consumption, and examines the resulting ecological toll upon the planet.
“We have unthinkingly liberated these creatures from the ground in the form of fossil fuels, so the dinosaurs represent the destructive violence of climate change and the specter of extinction,” the painter explained. As for words of advice in light of the precarious world in which we reside, Kerbow urges, “Don’t postpone the pursuit of what you really want in this life. Your time in this world is brief, so spend it wisely.”
See Michael Kerbow’s work in the Ruth’s Table virtual group exhibition “Climate Change: The Ticking Time Bomb” through Oct 15. “Requiem,” his solo exhibit of whimsically-dystopian paintings examining modern industrialized society runs through October 30 at UMA Gallery, 3630 Telegraph, Oakl. Kerbow hosts an SF Open Studios event at his studio in 1890 Bryant on Sat/2 and Sun/3. To view his work, visit his website and Instagram page.