Masterminds 2013: Artist of the Day, Michael Kerbow

Categories: Art, Artopia

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Who are today's most promising emerging artists? Each year, SF Weekly finds 10 of them for our Masterminds issue. You'll be able to see these artists and their work up close at Artopia on Thursday, Feb. 21, at SOMArts Cultural Center.

That night we'll also announce the three artists who will receive grants. Come out and meet them. But first, get to know their work.

See Also: All the Masterminds 2013 artists

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Michael Kerbow
A Means to an End

Dirty Pictures:

Michael Kerbow

"I want these works to feel simultaneously funny and disturbing."

San Francisco painter Michael Kerbow is talking about his series "Portents," which envisions a future where cars are piled up like discarded cigarette butts; where the center of a sprawling high-rise city is a huge pit threatening all that comes near; and where, in Their Refinement of the Decline, a colossal structure about 700 stories tall is spewing damaging smoke as it incinerates toxins, waste, and other environmental pollutants that are already damaging a sprawling metropolis. The over-burning of fossil fuels in dense, urban environments is a recurring theme in Kerbow's dystopian imagery -- though he does, indeed, soften the misery with both absurdity and beauty.

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Michael Kerbow

Their Refinement of the Decline was inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Tower of Babel paintings from the 16th century, and like those iconic Renaissance works, Kerbow's piece demands to be studied closely for its labyrinthine details, like the tens of thousands of tiny windows that front the downtown buildings, and the tens of thousands of metal fittings that compose the structure's smokestacks, support beams, and accordion grids.

The "Portents" series resonates with dark humor. For one thing, we never see people in Kerbow's futuristic scenes -- only an endless supply of mechanical transportation or concrete construction or some other vastness that contrasts with a picturesque horizon. Then there are the titles. Their Refinement of the Decline is a phrase that Catch-22 novelist Joseph Heller would have bestowed on the kind of Sisyphean project that Kerbow portrays. Kerbow, 48, received an MFA from New York's Pratt Institute in 1989, and has painted ever since, but it's only been the past few years that he's pursued art full time. Besides exhibiting in traditional Bay Area galleries, he had his work selected in 2011 for "Hello Tomorrow: Bay Area Artists Envision the Future," a juried exhibit of 22 artists at Berkeley's Brower Center, a hub for environmentalism and nonprofit work.

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Michael Kerbow

The cars that inhabit many of Kerbow's paintings, he says, represent a society reliant on fossil fuels. "The way I portray them amassed into piles, the cars begin to resemble the swarming of insects, as with an infestation or a collective hive mind." Kerbow says he tries to keep his paintings from being didactic or preachy, but if people ask him, he speaks his mind. "What we do today is affecting the type of world we're going to live in," he says. "Our present course of action is not sustainable on a finite planet."

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