whitehot | May 2009, Interview with Jay Isaac
Jay Isaac, Silver Falls, 2008, courtesy of the artist
Email interview with Jay Isaac
Brad Phillips: Hi Jay. You just opened a show in Vancouver called Flower Paintings, which was exactly that. Do you want to talk about how, starting as an abstract painter when I first met you in 2000, you moved into this rather, or seemingly, conventional subject matter?
Jay Isaac: I have become quite conservative in the last couple of years. It’s like I’ve had a stop mechanism implanted in my brain and it prevents me from including unnecessary or “contemporary” things in my paintings. I don’t understand the mentality of needing your audience to know that what you are doing is new and exciting. We all know now as a society that it doesn’t last; we see crash and burn careers everyday. I knew nothing when I was young. I was a piece of confused shit when I was young. I see it as a major weakness of artists now, falling prey to the tropes, the clichés of being avant garde. For me, painting the way I paint is honest because I enjoy doing it and I enjoy looking at it. I am also aware though that this will change soon and I will be making something completely different any second now. I judge people when they come into my studio and say nothing. This sounds insane, I know, but when some people see my stuff and say nothing, I feel they are missing a part of their brain that can access beauty; they are too caught up in bullshit to see anything.
So, all this being said, the conventional subjects really started when I moved back to NB 3 years ago. I needed to get out of Toronto and NB was a good place for me to learn how to paint again, which is exactly what I did. I wanted to learn how to paint from observation, outside. I thought it would be romantic and it turned out to be very romantic. I was influenced by the complete non-trendiness of that place and it gave me breathing room not to be concerned with making contemporary art, but to really get my painting and looking skills honed to a point where I was simply happy with making a painting of something in my direct surroundings. And most likely, I probably always wanted to paint like this but felt like I had to lay some kind of ground work that got me attention before I could just paint a vase of flowers with zero irony. Also, fantasy gets pretty boring after a while.
BP: That makes sense, the way that you felt a need to establish yourself as 'contemporary' and do that whole scene for a few years before you can start to make the work you really want. The irony is that you were quite successful with that early work too. Do you feel now that you don't really have any living peers you can admire or look at and feel a kinship with? Because it's true that you're the only person I can think of who is making conventional, plein air paintings that are also adamantly contemporary. Do you feel sort of like the only soldier on the battlefield?
JI: I didn’t feel while I was making those earlier works that it was ground work for what I am doing now, it’s just turned out that way and I can express that now. In terms of my contemporaries, there are obviously thousands of people working the way I have been working, but somehow, what they do is really boring to me. What's the difference between someone who decides to make work like this and someone who has only ever made work like this? I don’t know, I have always been interested in a piece of art, no matter what context, time or situation, standing for itself. You saw those pieces in Lindsay’s clothing store, the portraits, they are amazing, made by an unknown, totally competent and when people see them, they go "who made these, how much $$, where did you get them...????" ... They stand by themselves as objects, its a goal of mine to make work like that.
I do feel like a lone soldier and it’s never easy, some people like what I do for sure, others, not so much. But this was the case 10 years ago, with the fantasy stuff, people would be weirded out by it and now its the mainstream. People I feel a kinship to? there is a guy in NB, Gerry Collins, who has been making straight up work for a while now, but totally in the know.... you in a weird way, although you make paintings from plein air photos, there is a woman who shows at Andrea Rosen, I forget her name.. who does flower and landscape paintings and they are pretty good and John Kilduff from LETs Paint TV(Los Angeles) who I just did and interview with in Hunter and Cook.
As you saw at my show in Vancouver, the work is becoming more abstracted since those straight up observational paintings, starting from observation and then becoming more and more worked and abstracted. My project has taken a bit of a turn and I am interested in new ways of being involved in reality. I saw a while ago Gus van Sant’s, "Last days" the Kurt Cobain movie and it occurred to me that this, no matter how interesting of an idea it was to relate "reality" to an audience, was boring as dog shit and I don’t ever want to make anything as horrible and boring as that.
BP: I think you're talking about Gillian Carnegie at Andrea Rosen. I've always been a fan of her work. She paints her own ass and got me into painting rear ends myself. It's true that the works in your last show were more abstract, in some regard, not as straight, flowers are floating in space, not sitting on tables. It would be odd if you went through this whole cycle and returned to abstract painting. I guess sometimes I feel a bit jealous of your ability to function with amazing facility in all modes of painting. I don't watch Gus Van Sant movies, I just watch the Bourne films over and over. I guess I should say for people who don't know that NB is New Brunswick, in the east coast of Canada. You've made some amazing nudes yourself, of Lindsay and of models. Did you have any 'political' problems with painting nude models? Was it a complicated experience? Did you feel nervous having a nude women in the room with you, with all the usual expectations that situation implies being absent? Or maybe they weren't absent! I don't know, you’re a real Valentino.
JI: I don’t really ever experience political problems. Unless i say something stupid and have to apologize but mostly i am pretty aware of what i am doing through the grace of intuition. I know that sounds a bit big headed, but I think that if you can’t trust yourself as an artist then maybe you should be doing something else. With the nudes it boils down to me being attracted to Women. Same as with the flowers, I really like looking at women and flowers and I know a lot of other people feel the same. I couldn’t paint something I wasn’t attracted to, it would be perverse and my perversity stage ended a while ago. With these traditional subjects it puts me simultaneously at an advantage and disadvantage. The advantage is that I have this huge history of painting to compare myself to, in terms of what I am doing and if it holds up to who I adore (Matisse, Redon....), but obviously this is the disadvantage as well because I am always comparing myself to them. If in my lifetime I could make a painting one fraction as good as those guys, then I would feel like I was a good painter. Painting nudes... It was always interesting having strange women pose for me and almost worked better than having someone i knew pose for me. Probably because I would feel like I wanted to impress them and there is pressure doing a painting in two hours and when a naked woman comes over to look at how you painted her and if it looks like shit.....well, I am a big loser then. But now I only paint my girlfriend Lindsay and she is the only one I want to paint. She will read this and be happy I said that.
Jay Isaac, Alyson, 2008
BP: It's good to be a little arrogant, or I mean it's necessary in some way. You almost have to assume you are the best painter in the world to keep going because it's so fucking frustrating making paintings right now. I liked Malcolm Morley's show title 'The Art of Oil Painting' a few years ago for that reason. Do you feel, since most of the people who read this aren't Canadian, do you feel there is a certain Canadian-ness to your work? The Group of Seven, David Milne, NB psychedelia...Do you feel like you are carrying on a certain Canadian aesthetic sensibility or do you just feel connected to the history of painting in general? And John Currin, yea or nay?
JI: Currin is a yea for sure. Those sex paintings are great. It’s funny I never think of him but when I see them I always like them. You? How about those George Condo sex paintings?
I guess I have a Canadian sensibility. If Canadiana in art was to be defined, it would most likely be something to do with a spiritual reverence for the landscape, a mysticism and romanticism of the artist alone in nature. I like the idea of this and when I have painted outside, its nothing less than intense and amazing. My mind becomes very clear and I think of nothing and get lost in what i am doing. Its the biggest cliche but any naysayers should just go do it someday and see what I am talking about. I miss it being in Toronto, easy access to nature, but I could only stay in small town Canada for so long before I got fat and crazy. I wonder what other countries have this nationalistic sensibility about artists in nature? You would think in Australia, what’s that called, Australiana? or in Scandinavia, they probably have tons of artists spaced out, "communing with nature"... But like anything, I am really hesitant and weary of one thing defining me, that was a certain period of art making for me. It has expanded into something else now
BP: Well what do you think it's expanding into now? Or is it backspanding into abstraction again? Currin was ballsy to bust out the porno when it's so done. I don’t know the George Condo sex paintings, but I like his work a lot. You must love the Picabia nudes. I think about working with a model, but it's just not something that works conceptually for me, it's not personal enough. It wouldn't make sense. So what are you looking at/thinking about now?
JI: Picabia blows my mind. I have a big book that I look at sometimes and get very very jealous. I admire him. He had huge balls. His poetry is pretty good too. There is a great book that came out recently called "I am a beautiful monster", and it’s all of Picabia’s poetry. Its harder for me to talk about what I am thinking about in the present compared to talking about stuff I have already made. The work is definitely getting more abstract, heavily worked. They are studio paintings instead of being outside paintings. The ones at CSA space all started out as observational and degraded into abstraction over time, say 4 months. There were so many points where I could have stopped, and they would have been good I think, but wanted to see where they could go. I thought at one point i would bring them home after the show and keep working on them, to fuck my preciousness of them. Maybe they would get shitty or maybe they would get better. The last few weeks I have been going out and making super quick drawings outside, little scenes, compositions. I bring them to the studio and use them as the basis for very worked paintings. Start from life and then use that template for something that just becomes a painting, semi-abstract. I am liking texture and how colours work with each other, layered and crusty, kind of Bonnard-ish.. Not thick for thick’s sake, I hate that now. There is one Canadian artist I am thinking of that should quit wasting all that paint, it’s a shame. I could make a year’s worth of paintings with the paint this guy uses on one of his. Total waste of the earth’s resources for crappy art. It’s disgusting. You know who you are!!! But the thick I am liking happens over time and is the indicator that the painting took a while to make. I want to make stuff that best relates where my brain is at, in the time of making it. That’s why my stuff changes every couple of years. I change and it would be false if the work didn’t change with me. There is a part of me that admires people who can paint the same thing over and over. They most likely have better careers than I do, but I also look down upon it and totally don’t understand that mantality.
BP: I'm going to leave the spelling mistake of mantality over mentality because it's a better word. For someone who used to worship at the altar of Larry Poons I'm surprised you disdain globs of paint for no reason. Well maybe we should wrap this up. Picabia wrote poems - you told me a few years ago you were writing jokes. Want to go out on a joke?
JI: A joke?
I have no jokes.
Wait a second........
Heres a joke…
What do you call someone who hates palm trees, pina coladas and warm weather?