Joshua Caleb’s solo exhibition, Ascend, sold out eight weeks ahead of its February showing at Rice Village’s Sundry Contemporary Art Gallery. He’s garnered brand partnerships with the likes of Lamborghini (he hand-painted a Huracán EVO Spyder) and Coach (he hand painted a line of sneakers and accessories) and was exhibited at Art Basel Miami in 2019. Caleb is a rapidly growing force in the nearly impenetrable world of contemporary art to say the least. He’s also … a former Texans linebacker? Yes, in fact, the native New Yorker who established a home for himself in Houston during his 2018 stint with the Texans—you might better know him as Josh Keyes—has remained here post-retirement as he focuses on his colorful, mixed-media pop art, which he says he’s been infatuated with since he was a kid. We chatted with him about raising collector eyebrows and work to come.
You’ve described your artistic style as “industrial pop.” What does that mean?
Industrial pop art is a term I devised because there wasn’t an existing style that described the art I create. I use a lot of wood and industrial material to create the multi-layered surfaces I paint on. The finished work leans towards the commercial side but contains elements of natural craftsmanship.
Can you describe your art background? How did it lead you to where you are today?
My mind was always racing with ideas of things I wanted to build from an early age. In high school I was given an unbelievable opportunity to work with Jacqueline Rogers, an award-winning children’s book illustrator, and in college, I was drawn to a mixed media course. My goal was never to enter the fine arts world. I wanted to become a graphic designer for Burton Snowboard company. Other than creating art, snowboarding is my favorite thing to do. The snowboard and skate art, clothing, and music has influenced my work more than anything. I’m incredibly grateful to be able to infuse my work into the fine arts world. But someday I hope to collaborate with a company like Burton.
You seem to be drawn to bright colors and your recent pieces also incorporate the use of a skull motif. What does that combination mean to you?
I use the skull motif as a vessel to project a narrative—unintentionally thought-provoking given the “morbid” title society has placed on the skull. But to me it’s just a vessel without an orientation that can be used as a focal point to deliver a message. I use vibrant color to push the narrative. The contrasts of the different colors I use provide a deeper sense of emotion. You cannot hide behind authenticity, and that’s what vibrant colors are to me.
You wrote a letter to white America after the killing of George Floyd. Following its release, you spoke about an uncomfortable interaction with the manager of an arts supply store. Have you encountered other instances of racism or bigotry in the art community?
As a black man in America you learn at an early age that you are not treated equally and that people will dislike you because of the color of your skin and your culture. For the most part racism and bigotry resides behind closed doors and shut lips. Usually, right on cue, it rears its ugliness for everyone to see. That being said, for the most part, the people that I’ve encountered in the art community have treated me fairly and that’s all anyone can ask.
When and where can fans of your work see it displayed again?
I’ll be participating in a month-long group exhibition at Sundry Contemporary that opens April 10. I’ve created a new piece that consists of many of the hand-cut wood elements, layers, and bright raw colors seen in Ascend, but it also shows the progression of my work and the direction of things to come. Unofficially, I’m working on another solo exhibition that will open this summer and creating a limited merchandise line, which will be released in the next month or so.