MONTECRISTO

Jay Isaac’s “The Sponges”

A few blocks east of Main Street, silence returns to the city. Brunswick Street seems as if it was built as a foil to the urban cacophony of shops, cafés, and traffic nearby; and as if an unmarked boundary has been abruptly traversed, trees and tranquility return. From the vantage point atop Great Northern Way, Monte Clark Gallery stands in plain view, its red exterior bold and unmistakable amidst the mix of natural and industrial landscapes.

Monte Clark itself is an elegant space, and strangely synchronized with its environment; the concrete walls that support its lofty ceilings stand in stark contrast to the long wooden slats, where an eclectic selection of artworks are meticulously stored. The white, well-lit gallery space is also full of dynamic juxtapositions, but of a different kind.

Jay Isaac’s “The Sponges” has come to Monte Clark, a mesmeric suite of abstract paintings that are as much about their striking, synesthetic imagery as they are about the media and methods that went into their making. The strata of acrylic paint, thickened with Isaac’s innovative infusions of calcium carbonate, contribute an immense depth and dimension to each painting. At the same time, the inclusion of sand in the canvases creates a haptic immediacy that transcends the paintings and asserts a palpable presence in the gallery itself. “The materials are very natural, and I’m always thinking about the dynamics between things,” remarks Isaac regarding his unique use of sand and chalk within the paint. “Acrylic is very plastic, but chalk and sand are very natural. I’m always looking for dynamics, contradictions, connections.”

Isaac was educated in Vancouver at Emily Carr University, though he took his painting practice back to Toronto after he graduated, and spent a few years in his native New Brunswick where he worked on his figurative technique. However, since establishing his successful Toronto-based practice, Isaac has specialized in an abstract style in which he works on an entire series of paintings at the same time; as the paintings develop individually they also inform each other collectively, and as Isaac identifies consonant and dissonant themes within the suite of paintings, he confers a unifying name upon the whole series while leaving each canvas within it Untitled. In this case, Isaac was inspired to leave the imprints of sponges—usually utilized to smear paint—unaltered throughout the canvases in order to highlight the trial-and-error process of creating of each work. “I realized I can use the exact form of this kind-of-ridiculous object,” says Isaac. “It becomes almost a metaphor for absorbing these different ideas and trajectories.” The different ideas and trajectories may sometimes come to a dead-end, and Isaac acknowledges failure as an indispensable part of the process; every failed attempt is still present as a part of the finished product.

Even though his abstract painting can be an experiential and experimental adventure, Isaac explains, “There’s a confident tunnel-vision I have in the studio to make things work, even if they seem like there’s no way in hell they’re going to work.” It’s easy to get a sense of this ethic when examining “The Sponges” up close; the eponymous shapes unabashedly manifest, yet manage not only to be integrated in the image, but also be integral to it, blending in and standing out all at once. “It’s like this challenge to myself, taking elements that really shouldn’t really work together or colours that really shouldn’t work together; and it’s not even really that conscious, but just seems like a natural way I work.” It is these dynamics, the strange, the uncanny, the unexpected, that define this series of artworks and make them so intriguing.

Jay Isaac’s “The Sponges” is at Monte Clark Gallery from May 3 to May 31, 2014.