These Dystopian Paintings Portend The Terrifying Near Future Of Our Cities

Michael Kerbow envisions a hellacious future of urban density.

These days, our media landscape abounds with dystopic visions of the future: children fighting to the death, armed apes, flesh-crazed zombies. The urban future as foreseen by San Francisco-based artist Michael Kerbow is no less terrifying, though significantly more beautiful, and plausible. Portents is a series of acrylic and oil paintings that feature the inevitable result of human over-consumption, over-construction, and over-population of our cities. “This is where things are headed unless we change our actions,” he says.

Compulsive Actions

Kerbow has lived in both New York and California, but his landscapes aren’t based on specific locales. He was inspired in part by “San Angeles,” the distended metropolis from Blade Runner. “San Francisco and L.A. merged into one giant city. Mexico City or cities in China are like that,” he says.

Their Refinement of the Decline features a “monstrous structure that’s meant to fix the pollution we’ve created. But for it to work, it starts belching smoke and leaking oil and causing as much pollution as it’s fixing.” The painting, which was inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel (1563) is a commentary on society’s “short-sighted choices.”


Churn features a “humongous churning mass of cars, like mixing cookie dough in a blender.” To Kerbow, the painting “is a good metaphor for talking about fossil fuel usage.” A Means to an End, meanwhile, is a “parable about human hubris.” Also inspired by Bruegel, it’s based on the story of Icarus. “Every day our lives are about getting from point A to B,” he says. “When you’re commuting, you’re not being mindful about what’s powering that way of existing.” Hence the smoke stack fouling the atmosphere out beyond the traffic jam.


Kerbow isn’t anti-automobile, though he calls his daily walk to the studio a “luxurious” commute. And while his house overlooks the highway, Portents predated his most recent move. “I paint stuff,” he says. “And then I happen to live next to it.” Which is perhaps further proof that we can’t escape the inevitable.

See his work in the gallery above.


About the author

Jennifer Miller is the author of The Year of the Gadfly (Harcourt, 2012) and Inheriting The Holy Land (Ballantine, 2005). She's a regular contributor to Co.Create.