Jeffrey Isaac, ‘George W. Bush leading the war of terror’, 2007, oil on canvas, 250 x 360 cm.
I have been following Jeffrey Isaac‘s paintings for some time now (about a year actually) and a little while back (in an effort to understand some of his works), I had an e-mail conversation on motivations behind his art, his style of oil painting, his choice of subjects and his views on art. The conversations led to the following dialogue (you may call it an interview), presented here.
Some of this is stoked by a particular interest I have had in hearing social commentary from US artists who live outside the States and Jeffrey is an example of such an artist. Sometimes the commentaries developed are richer due to a melding of cultures and as a result their art tends to reflect inherent local perceptions to global social issues.
1. Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself, your background and if you are like me (do not have a background in the arts), what drew you to the same? Why did you move to Italy after many years in the United States?
[Jeffrey] I was born in NY, moved to Switzerland at 6 and attended Swiss, British and American elementary and high schools. I decided to be an artist at around 12- 13. It was the only subject in school I excelled at and there were several examples in my family. I graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in painting, my 3rd year I attended Camberwell School of Art & Crafts in London. After college I settled in downtown NYC in the thick of the underground art scene. I took part in most of the going outlets available — besides drawing and painting: art-rock, performance art, publishing, running an alternative gallery and a performance space, etc. Eventually the more peripheral activities gave way to painting and the distractions of NY became, well, distractions. Italy was an easy choice for my wife & I, close enough to Switzerland (with a work permit as a fall-back) and full of warm Italian climate, people and geography.
2. How would you describe yourself as a painter? Realist, abstract painter, allegorical etc….
[Jeffrey] I bristle a bit when described as a hyper-realist. That school is about pure technique — my painting uses a matter-of-fact photo-realist rendering to convey content and concepts. The subject matter is always an impossible or unlikely reality, in contrast with the believable neutrally photo-based painting style. The key is the dislocation, expectations are dashed, the confusion should lead to a new reading. I suppose a kind of surrealism. Best description might be Conceptual Artist using traditional (and other) media.
Jeffrey Isaac, ‘George W. Bush leading global warming’, 2007, oil on canvas, 250 x 360 cm.
3. I am looking at two of your most recent paintings ‘GWB leading the war of terror and GWN leading global warming’ and am astounded by the detail and the allegory included in the minutiae. Why do you paint so large? Do you like it or is it that grand subject that intersects ominous events demand large canvases (as some of your older works tends to be smaller)?
[Jeffrey] I’ve always enjoyed working large. I appreciate spectacle. When opportunity and inspiration permit me a large piece, the content needs to merit the space and time allotted. I’ve long been fascinated by humongous 19th century panoramas. My largest to date was 2 x 18 x 6 (diam.) meters. Obviously placing such inconvenient formats is difficult so I practice restraint and alternate with more modest sizes.
4. You are a prolific painter. You seem to have turned out over 500 oil on canvases over the years. Do you make up the subjects and the context or do you choose to portray current events in an allegorical sense? I am looking at your ‘Devil’ series as we speak.
[Jeffrey] I like to work in series. The concept comes first, the format is adapted and the execution is then straight-forward and workman-like. The subject matter responds to the previous work — development or variation. The references I use originally came from my own photos, now also computer-generated figures and images off the internet. For example the settings in the “Devil” series are from my photos, the devils are computer graphics.
5. A lot of what you do hinge on certain ‘other-worldly’ connections (anatomy series, devil series, etc….) Is there a special reason?
[Jeffrey] Isn’t all art somehow about the sacred (speaking as a 3rd generation atheist)? The iconic act of fixing a select moment in time automatically renders it as a symbol. I often choose “big” subjects to treat with scrutiny and irony. Any artist worth his or her salt will make art he or she would like to see personally, as opposed to what he or she thinks it “should” look like.
6. How would you describe the magazine that you started (the PIM magazine)? How has it lead to your artistic development?
[Jeffrey] I’m not really at liberty to acknowledge PIM as it’s strictly pseudonymous, suffice to say that it was started as a means to collaborate with the large talent-pool yearning for exposure in downtown NY 25 years ago and has stalked its editor around the world refusing to die ever since.
7. Do you think your art has the power to change the world? Would you want people to be educated by some aspect of your art – conceptually or directly…? Would you say that one of the reasons for paintings political subjects are to highlight inequities, the resultant ironies and hence shine a spotlight on corrupt political practices…
[Jeffrey] I suppose my role is to bear witness, present my point of view, leave a historical document. If the pieces were to be used as propaganda (which is what you infer,) it would depend on whomsoever circulates or publicizes them.
The painting above is what he sent to me when I asked him for a self portrait.