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Interviews / March 23, 2015

Jay Isaac Paints Through Problems

Toronto artist Jay Isaac speaks about his unusual approach to painting and argues that the medium is still marginalized within Canada.

I expected to find Jay Isaac in a studio just north of the Canadian Art office on Spadina Avenue. When I bumped into him on the street last year, he had new paintings soon headed to Vancouver and the Monte Clark Gallery—it was a good time for a studio visit. But the visit had never happened and instead of walking a few blocks north, I was on a late-arriving and slow Bathurst streetcar on a cold March morning headed south to Niagara Street. Isaac had relocated there after his Monte Clark show last May and it was a building I knew well. Many Toronto artists have called the old block-long industrial building on Niagara Street home. Even now, surrounded by gleaming new condo buildings, it remains home and work place for a sizeable number of artists on the Toronto scene. Isaac thinks it is probably only a temporary spot for him. Either a new condo will take over the site, or he will need more room to work on another solo show. As we meet, he is in a group show called “Shit, I’m an Artist’s Artist” closing next week in Copenhagen and gearing up for other group shows at Cooper Cole in Toronto and the new Patrick Mikhail Gallery in Montreal. With tea on the table, we talk about painting.

Richard Rhodes: You were one of the first resurgent painters in Toronto at the end of 1990s. At the time, painting had pretty much disappeared in the contemporary scene. How do you remember the climate when you started?

Jay Isaac: Only a few people were painting then and Katharine Mulherin was one of the only gallerists showing it. Susan Hobbs would show Sandra Meigs and Shirley Wiitasalo, but there was not much anywhere else.

RR: You even showed at an artist-run space, which was unheard of. You had a show at Mercer Union with work that made references to the Group of Seven.

JI: Yes, Futurism and the Group of Seven. Things that were considered lower forms of art—Cubism, fantastical abstraction. There was even an Alex Colville rendition: the woman with binoculars, but done in a Cubist/Futurist style.

RR: Your recent work still shows a Cubist influence.

JI: Well, I have gone through a lot of experimental stages and all those influences are inside of me. I am a student of painting and always have been. I consider my paintings assemblages. A lot of Cubist forms and sculptures were assemblages.

The new paintings are done in acrylic mixed with chalk, which dulls it down. Colour is usually applied with sponges and the paintings are on drywall. I wanted to screw around with surface and expectations and also the fact that, at times, I have to work as a house painter to fund my practice.

I like the idea of a working surface, something really plain.

The four paintings you see here go together. They started off as a mural related to my desire to become healthier. A lot of my work has these mandates of trying to get the personal into what I am doing. I was taking different medications at the time and I was aware that they were exerting influences that were affecting my decisions on a day-to-day basis. It was an otherness, an almost parasitical force. So I wondered, what kind decisions do you make when you are on steroids? What kinds of decisions do you make when you are putting weird creams on your skin? In that sense the work is always a bridge between sincerity and irony.

RR: There is a traditional understanding that all painters are sincere about what they make.

JI: Yes, some people still think that. I said to a curator recently that I think painting is still a marginalized form in Canada and she said no, it’s not, that’s ridiculous. But I do believe that that is the case, especially in Canada where there is a strong ground for Neo-Conceptualism. If you look at the Sobey Art Award, there has been, I think, only one painter shortlisted in its history. Painting is seen as a guttural, feeling-based, non-conceptual activity, which I think is funny. Just look at a documentary like Painters Painting and listen to Frank Stella—you are going to have your mind blown.

In that sense, there is an irony in even being a painter now. To be a painter now, you need to be slightly ironic. Otherwise you could be mistaken for a painter. In painting I need to see a certain amount of confusion, a bit of self-awareness.

Painting has humour. I like painting myself into corners, setting up impossible problems but knowing there is some kind of solution in there. I just have to keep going and finding it. That is what keeps me interested. As time goes on, I find that the problems get more difficult and the solutions get harder to find.

RR: Define problems.

JI: Even from the beginning—jut setting out to make a set of personal abstract paintings on drywall using acrylics—there is something. It could be: is the shape too indicative? Is it not indicative enough? Are these two colours too easy together? Are they too difficult? Is this thing challenging enough? It goes on and on. I need to find interesting solutions, not just good solutions. I am not much into the idea of a “good” painting, anyway.

RR: Let’s talk about this chalky evergreen painting that is part of this group of four. When I look, I see body parts. I see maybe Bambi’s father—a proud stag standing at the edge of the forest. Can you break this painting down for me?

JI: Yes, to a certain extent I can break it down. All these paintings, including this one, are consistently flipped when I am painting them. They probably could be shown another way.

RR: So, no up, no down; no left, no right?

JI: Yes, but they do settle at a certain place. But since I do flip them, in that sense, they are purely abstract, purely process-based. The green one could actually go another way. It started out as a geometric body with a cut-out of brightly coloured health drinks from a magazine. You can still see part of the cut-out but it wasn’t working for me so I covered it up and started carving into the drywall—the white bits showing through.

In a way, the paintings become sculptures, like in my first show at the Monte Clark Gallery when it was in the Distillery District. At the time, I was working in an antique store. I would take unsold things and mix them with failed paintings, which became assemblages. They were very sculptural. So were the paintings in my last Monte Clark show in Vancouver. The paintings had sponge forms on them. These paintings are the next step.

RR: Your work has been sculptural from the very beginning. It is always tactile and present, yet it also has a sense of trying to draw its viewer into some kind of irresolution, some kind of ambiguity. They are unsettled and evolving in the midst of being physical and fixed. What is this about?

JI: They are fixed because they need to stop at some point, to reach an end. But if there is this sense of non-resolution to them I think it must be because I am very anti- the idea of understanding, anti- the direct journey from point A to point B. I don’t want there to be any understanding where you say, OK, I get it: this was made this way and it resolves in a conceptual way and that this is how you read it. For me, that is an offshoot of, for lack of a better word, capitalism.

RR: So, to be understood is to be consumed?

JI: Exactly. Presenting something that is not to be easily consumed is a great way of taking an anti-consumerist stand, even though paintings hang on gallery walls and capitalist institutions. It is important for artists to fight against that stuff. Otherwise you start to become complicit. When you commit to something that is about not understanding, you become an antagonist to consumption.

RR: And in place of understanding is…

JI: Experience. Experience is the best word. We have gotten a little sidetracked with art as an extreme meaning-based thing. Of course things have meaning, but not intellectual meaning. It is experiential, but these are not the most fashionable things to be talking about.

RR: Do you think this might be why some people in the art world have trouble with painting?

JI: Yes, in the art world painting is seen as a primitive form but painting has an amazing function. It is this weird language that has been around for a long time. I can’t think of another medium as problematic as painting. It is an intense medium, which means that it carries a lot of baggage.