Jay Isaac is a maverick ideas man who, with his recent exhibition at Paul Petro Contemporary Art in Toronto, claimed to dispense with the ideational altogether. “The Zone of No Ideas,” which presented an ambitious suite of 12 new paintings, dared to pursue a relentlessly “non-ceptual” set of painterly problems in a moment dominated by linear, neo-conceptual logic. According to the artist, his newly abstract approach and enlarged scale, is “the natural evolution after reaching the limits of object making.” That evolution began in 2006 with a period of reinvention which saw the artist immerse himself in the present tense of observation while painting the New Brunswick landscape out of the back of his parents’ Volvo.
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The “present-moment activity” recorded by Isaac in those earlier, observational works could, paradoxically, be seen as a bid for the timelessness that is a central tenet of the romantic aesthetics to which the title of the artist’s resulting 2007 exhibition, also at Paul Petro, alluded: “The Beauty of Things, In This World, Now and Always.” In common with works predating that period of perceptual retraining—which juxtaposed elements drawn from disparate moments in the continuum of modernism and its pop-cultural discontents—Isaac’s recent paintings do not propose a tidy reconciliation of the ephemeral and the eternal. Returning his attention to the presentness of studio practice, the artist has brought forward a longstanding engagement with science fiction, now refracted through the lens of non-representation: envisioning perceptual encounters with differently constituted beings in end times.
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“I am a person who acknowledges changing,” states Isaac in collaborator Tony Romano’s timely film portrait of the artist, Beautiful Monster (screened at roughly the same time as Isaac’s show in an exhibition of Romano’s recent work at Diaz Contemporary). While specifically addressing the stylistic permutations which have been a consistent feature of his career, this avowal might just as well apply to the form and content of his recent work, which reveals new contours relative to one’s vantage point. These are open-ended pieces in which past process and future reception play out on the same electric- and sherbet-tinted surface. Seemingly non-objective at first sight (all works are Untitled), the fugitive outlines of psychedelic bouquets and molten silhouettes—familiar from earlier bodies of work—emerge from impastoed (but only modestly gestural) underpainting and feathery surfaces upon sustained viewing.
Isaac’s work has always repaid attentive looking, yet these latest works demand viewers’ full attention. And attention—as Isaac, in his role as co-editor of the magazine Hunter and Cook, well knows—can be a zero-sum game in these accelerated times. Furthermore, abstraction has had a long history of running a deficit in Toronto (Painters Eleven notwithstanding). Since Bertram Brooker’s debut at the Arts and Letters Club in 1927, audiences in this harried city have consistently viewed abstraction with suspicion: an eccentric commodity not worth the temporal investment. Given this context, it is all the more to be applauded that Isaac has produced such a complete and mature statement in an unapologetically slow idiom.
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