A Week of Canadian Painting: Jay Isaac

Because we are a Canadian-run publication and we admire those who continue to work with the arguably dated medium of paint, in the arguably dismal landscape of the Canadian art-world, we have decided to do a week-long feature on some of our favorite current Canadian painters, in no particular order. Stay tuned this week to see who we believe to be among the greatest established and emerging painters the Great White North has to offer!

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untitled, 2015

I don’t know that I’m alone in thinking that we live in perhaps one of the worst historical periods for painting. It would take a private detective of the highest calibre to find more than a dozen artists worldwide who are making paintings that are not derivative when they aren’t originally awful. Jay Isaac is one of these few. That he is one of these few is perhaps a factor in why I’ve seen him struggle to achieve a wider audience, something that upsets me personally and as an artist. To pull an obscure old quote out that seems apt, John Maynard Keynes once compared the stock market to a beauty contest wherein “It is not  a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgement, are really the prettiest, nor even those which the average opinion generally thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligence to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.” Keynes could be speaking about contemporary art. That being said, it’s then a hostile climate for an original mind. Especially a mind like Isaac’s that not only works hard at making original paintings, but original paintings that question good v. bad taste, and aren’t made to accommodate or please the viewer. I was in Vancouver for Jay’s last show at Monte Clark Gallery, and I watched the paintings being made in his studio. Jay often does something I appreciate in art, which is to incorporate an almost indiscernible fuck you into his paintings. The show in Vancouver was called “The Sponges” – and that’s what they were. They were acrylic paintings and, if you’re familiar with painting, to make serious work in acrylic is, when not seemingly impossible, definitely in some ways hostile. Jay plays on clichés endlessly. None of the paintings in the show, and some were very big, were touched by a paintbrush. They were all made with sponges. To paint with sponges is a classic cliché. Some of the paintings were simply seven foot high sponge shapes, framed in what has become Jay’s most consistent feature, a shatteringly adept gift for colouration. Each painting was made by breaking every rule we learn in colour theory, putting orange against purple, and always, like some insane alchemist, Jay is able to do to things with paint that colour theory tells us can’t be so. Making paintings myself I would often tell him the thing painters hate hearing most, which is ‘it’s done, don’t touch it.’ Jay would smile at me. That’s all. Next week I’d go back and ask him where that painting went, and he point to a different painting, and say it’s under there. Sometimes this upset me, knowing an incredible abstract painting had vanished overnight with one sponge and a tub of grey paint. But every time I questioned whether or not he should have erased something, I learned I was wrong, and that even though there was a sadness in knowing a painting I loved was buried under a new one, the new one was always stronger. Jay works, like any artist with real talent, entirely on intuition. And I’ve never known his intuition to fail him. He’s a classic auteur – I’ve seen him countless times now reach a place within a body of work where people are buying, where his skill is on full display, only to abandon it (something few artists with a desire for success would do) to further push himself and the envelope. For this and other reasons I think Jay is one of the bravest artists working in Canada today.
– Brad Phillips 

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 untitled, 2015

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untitled, 2015.

Where did you grow up? What was the landscape like?
I grew up in Saint John NB. The landscape is a mix of sad, old, suburban, tortured, industrial, poor and gloomy. Get 20 minutes outside of the city and its all beauty.

Do you think being Canadian has had any impact on your work?

What is your favorite medium to work with?
I always come back to paint. Recently its acrylic.

What themes do you work with, if any?
Some guy at a bar a few months ago was aggressively trying to get me to answer this question.He kept screaming at me “WHATS YOUR WORK ABOUT!! ????PURPLE?????” The more I think about it, he might have been right.

Are you inspired by any Canadian painters?
Yes. Bertram Brookers early abstractions are great. Harold Town as well. I like artists that switch it up.


isaac1acrylic,chalk and sand on canvas,2014, 65x85inches untitled (from the Sponges series) 2014


untitled (from the Sponges series) 2014


Is there any one painter who has influenced your work more than others?
Francis Picabia is hard not to think about a lot.

Are you drawn to any particular historical art movement?
Not really. I like most of them after 1880.

Do you consider your work to be political?
Yes, very much.

What do you think is missing from the Canadian art scene?
A willingness to fail miserably for the sake of originality.