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Jeff Soto's Last Voyage: A Visual Analysis
The Last Voyage
Soto's "The Last Voyage" is a painting on wood panel, 72X60 inches, it is done in acrylic, and was part of a body of work Soto exhibited in his "Life Cylces" exhibition held at the Johnathan Levine gallery.
The subject matter, like much of Soto's work, is a monster that has human-like characteristics, inhabiting a desolate land that resembles our earth. It could be a futuristic earth or a made up world, but the connection to humanity and our environment is undeniable. The figure in the foreground is crammed in a ship that seems to over between a desolate landscape and a polluted, yet bright sky. The landscape below is a gray and blue expanse of barren mountains that jut out towards the creature in the ship and the blue sky. The sky turns from blue to green, as Soto uses his trademark swirls and graffiti inspired circles and spirals, making it look like pollution, here. There is also a stream of exhaust coming from the back of the ship, making it appear to hover, as if it cannot completely leave the empty land it comes from, yet cannot continue skyward, to someplace new and of promise. The sky, despite its green, polluted atmosphere is bright and there are white clouds that linger about the ship, hopeful in the contrast to the greens and blues. Behind the figure that sits in the ship, there is another, more vibrant green in the shape of tree branches that come out like a shadow. Also included is an arm that echoes the figures own arm and points skywards toward the distance. The sails and flags of the ship fly above the figure and the shadows behind him. The flags seem to have a lot of motion in them, as if they are joyously waving in the wind, waiting for the ships arrival; whereas the sails, though full, seem smaller than the rest of the figures in the composition. In comparison to the large body stuffed into the ship, they seem minuscule, as if they are not large enough to support the ship and its voyagers.
Below the sails, sits the actual figure of the composition, and perched on his head is a round, red ball-like creature, that has jagged teeth, beady black eyes and a sinister smile. He simply sits on the head of the creature below, whose green face looks less monstrous than that of the thing above him. The main figure has pointy ears and oval, blue eyes. His teeth are also jagged, but less so, and his smile is more benevolent. In contrast to his green face, the figures feet and wrists are flesh colored, while his hands are blue and look as though they have been dipped in paint or turned that color due to frostbite or some infliction. His left hand holds a paint roller on a long pole, it extends to the far right hand of the composition and we can see a light blue trail that it makes across the green and white sky. In his right hand he holds an anchor that dangles behind him, towards the mountains below. The anchor is tiny and is attached to a small piece of string. The figures large body is covered in a garment that resembles a burlap sack, although it is furry and grey. The fur resembles that of a fluffy and cuddly animal, yet it is clearly not growing out of the figure, because the garment is torn off at the wrists and the ankles. The figures feet busts through the hull of the ship and dangle in the air below. They look relaxed, as if it is no big deal that this creature cannot fit into his vessel. Vines cover the feet and wrap around the ankles, coming from inside of the ship. There are also tiny flowers and vines covering the figures form, as well as growing out of the back of the ship and the sides. The flowers are stylized so that they resemble decorations from wallpapers and look less than natural. They are gray and pink and cover nearly everything in the ship. Next to the figures legs and lower body are two fluffy conical forms that are blue and pink. The way he has them snuggled to his body they could be children or stuffed animals or something that allow him comfort, since they are the only thing that seems friendly, other than the flowers in the composition. To the main figures right, perched on the side of the ship is another creature. This one has his back to the viewer, facing the main figure, with his black tail hanging off the side of the ship. His body, like the other small creatures, is round and his ears are long and pointed. He is colored black. On the other side of the main figure, there is another fuzzy tail-like object that hangs over the ship. This one dangles down, then curves upward, like the tail of a cat or another animal that has control over its tail. This shape and angle of the fluffy tail would make the viewer assume that it is attached to something that has control over it and is able to raise it into the air, instead of allowing it to dangle over the edge.
Lastly, the ship itself, as I have said earlier, looks as though it is suspended in the air, above the desolation and below the clouds and sunlight that come from far into the distance, penetrating the green smog and pollution that hovers above the barren mountain range. The ship itself is nothing fancy. It is a grayish brown color and looks like a typical pirate ship. It is not ornate or extravagant; it is simply a wooden ship that is too small for its voyagers. The ship is in fair condition, except for the feet that have been shoved through the hull, breaking the planks that it is made from. The black exhaust that comes from the back of the ship also represents the struggle it seems to be having. As though it cannot leave where it came from, it does not have the strength, yet it cannot return, for there is nothing to return to. The captain of this ship is hopeful, as he paints his future in the sky above and beyond the land he leaves behind, yet he is also tied to his native land, by the anchor he holds in his hand, although it is tiny it is just heavy enough to keep the ship in a state of flux, unable to descend and too heavy to continue on its journey.
Is this a visual metaphor for humanity and our complex relationship with our own environment? Soto’s work as a whole seems to be a critique on our humanity, as well as a celebration of it. Despite his usual dark, graffiti influenced style; there are always aspects of bright colors, and vibrant juxtapositions within the darkness. Does this represent our current state as human beings surrounded by a built environment and a culture that has separated itself from nature so much that we are unable to return to it, even if we wanted to? Yet what about the bright colors, what do they represent? A new hope for humanity or could they symbolize the cycle of life and that with death and destruction there is a new beginning, a new start?
The title “The Last Voyage” helps explain this a little bit. I feel that this particular piece by Soto is about this complex relationship we have with our environment. Through depicting a made up creature in a made up world, Soto makes a metaphor for our humanity. We are no longer human beings from nature and earth, we are our own product of a culture that has done nothing but harm our environment, we our people who have destroyed our natural surroundings in favor of a built environment. What Soto captures in this creature is our own humanity. Our innocence and our hope, this is what is bright and vibrant in his work. Despite all our flaws, humans have the ability to love, to care, and to nurture. For example, in this piece the characters smile is much more benevolent than the red creatures, his eyes are gentler and he is surrounded by flowers, despite the fact that one can deduce that his kind could be the reason why the mountains are barren. Something in Soto’s work is hopeful. This is the hope that there is hope. This hope stems from rebirth, the cycle of life, the belief that even if human beings were wiped off this planet that something might continue to live, to grow, to prosper. It is a belief that life will preserver no matter what because that is the natural order of things, even if this life is not human being, it is still life and it still exists and that will never cease.
Even Soto’s materials can be a representative of this ideal that his work is about the relationship we have with our environment. Through a juxtaposition of dark, graffiti inspired imagery, and bright cartoon aspects he conveys a metaphor for the destruction, yet necessity and reverence of our environment and our natural world. By illustrating his cultural influences of cartooning, graffiti, and pop surrealism, and realistic imagery the viewer is able to understand a dynamic relationship that exists within our material and visual culture and our connection to the earth in which we came from and grew out of.