The Painterly Veil is an exhibition I curated recently that happened at Steamwhistle Brewery. It featured four of my colleague painters: Laura Dawe, Devin O'Brien, Nick Zirk, and Cameron Wiley. The Painterly Veil refers to a common thread between the works of these artists. They use expressionist brushstrokes to paint subject matters drawn from various source materials
The underlying metaphor of the veil is in the artist’s paint application being perceived as sort of sloppy and haphazard while their subject matter portrays a deeper psychological meaning. When one views the painting they might think, “Oh, there’s a sort of apathetic-nonchalance happening here” but really there’s an intentioned vulnerability and interiority hidden inside the layers of paint.
Works from The Painterly Veil
Can you comment on your curation process in planning the art exhibit?
A lot of the writing and thinking that came about as I was finishing my last series of paintings ended up resembling a curatorial proposal. At the time I was making paintings that were similar in technique and content to the four painters in the show. When I had a reasonable enough essay it came down to figuring out who my favourite Toronto painters were who make work along the lines of the show’s thesis. With some pictures it became a pretty nice curatorial package.
The Painterly Veil features work by Laura Dawe Devin O'Brien Nicholas Zirk and Cameron Wylie. How did you meet these artists?
Devin is my oldest friend who's in the show; we went to OCAD together. In our last couple years of school we sort of united in a similar philosophy of painting. We ended up doing a couple collaborative works that ended up informing both of our continued practices.
Laura Dawe and I shared a studio in Kensington. Our friend who was managing the space conducted a bunch of interviews to figure out who was the best fit for an open spot. When he met Laura, her work and personality made it obvious she was the ultimate match. “Laura paints naked ladies and Izaak paints naked dudes. It’s a match made in heaven. We’ll put them beside each other.” I used to frame her paintings in exchange for stick and poke tattoos. I’ve got an arm-full of Laura Dawes. I think she might still owe me one.
Nick Zirk and Cameron Wiley graduated from OCAD this past year. It's funny that you sort of finally meet painters as they finish school. It's a bit like testing the waters: when they continue to show up to art events and be part of the community it's like permission to actually befriend these people. I saw Nick’s work for the first time at the graduate exhibition and was very impressed by it. We ended up meeting months later at an exhibition and eventually did the sort of artist courtship thing where we visit each other's studios to drink beer and talk shop.
Cameron Wylie’s work I also noticed at the grad show. I didn't meet him until Nick had curated an exhibition that happened in September at Northern Contemporary where Cameron’s work was included. I was very impressed by it and again it fit into the notions of the show. Now we’re all buds.
What is contemporary expressionism? What other art movements are informing the works of each of these painters?
Contemporary expressionism came out of the 70s and 80s as sort of an objectionable response to abstract expressionism and pop art. Inherently it's about expression, emotion, and psychology in it's rendition of figures and real world objects. Since the the 70s and 80s painting at an accelerating rate switches back and forth between emphasis on abstraction and emphasis on figuration. Recently, in Canada at least, abstraction has sort of been on the forefront. Over the last few years there has been a tangible response to the decade or so of emphasized Canadiana abstraction and I’d say we’re covering it here.
The four painters in the show are conveying a sort of general frustration with society and its oversaturation of media. You can see, in their various subject matters, references from all sorts of places: art history, instagram, logos, tarot cards, and so forth. In the overwhelming nature of media exposure is produced this chaotic and evocative type of painting.
What language would you use to describe your own art practice?
Along with the sort of thesis that artists are expected to have for a particular series, there's also this grand scheme statement that I’m always trying to figure out. I'm working on something completely different from what I was six months ago, so I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently.
It's difficult to generalize everything together, but I would say that I generally dwell on art history in my work. There is a lot of alluding to motifs of historical figurative painting; there are lots of little nods to particular painters. I would say that the things that I make are usually reflective of my psychology and philosophy in a particular moment. As time progresses there is a sort of narrative of my own life that acts as a thread in my work. The particular seasonal mood that I'm in affects the existential or otherwise moods of my paintings. I like to balance naturalistic objects, figures and motifs and put them inside these impossible metaphysical spaces or these metaphysical lacks of spaces. Text is occasionally an important part of the compositions that I make, titles are important too. I like to think about idioms and I like to use a lot of clichés.
Izaak Sacrebleu, Dennis Hopper, 2017
Izaak Sacrebleu, California Bob, 2018
Why is painting important? Can you comment on the struggle to find newness in such an ancient art form?
I think that painting is important because it's so ancient. It's a natural human proclivity to enjoy painting; to enjoy the tactility of an image that’s been completely made by hand. I think that it's a natural vocation for people to pursue because it’s so historically and innately significant.
Finding the inspiration to keep going in such an ancient medium is of course difficult at times. You find a new way to paint a new thing or a new way to articulate something new and you use those strategies for a period of time. At some point you come to the end of it being new and you need to kick start the newness. Sometimes you get to the point where you've completely exhausted an idea and it’s time for a break.
Every year or so I take a couple of months to do something else creative while continuing to research, look around, write, and think in order to manage the unfathomable task of figuring out something new to paint.
But the newness happens; it's definitely difficult but it's certainly rewarding. Making an original painting is no task to be scoffed at. It’s like chasing the dragon: finishing something that's original and fresh is an unparalleled feeling.
How would you describe the creative community in Toronto? Do you think the city is artist friendly?
I would describe the art community in Toronto as a small, or rather, I would describe the contemporary art community in Toronto as small. I would say that there are certainly exciting things happening in Toronto in contemporary art, but I would also say that it's overshadowed by art that I wouldn't exactly call contemporary. There will always be paintings of rocks and trees in Canada. Contemporary art isn’t as recognised as it could be by the average citizen of Toronto, but I suppose that’s probably the case in most places.
The type of art that I mouth water over is very contemporary and very specialized; obviously that's not for everyone. I would say that there are maybe 10 exciting galleries in Toronto and then there's a lot of places showcasing less than exciting art. But I think that that ratio is probably similar in most places.
What non painterly art forms to look to for inspiration?
I listen to a lot of music; I sort of go through phases in terms of genre. I listen to a lot of Delta Blues and Bluegrass. I listen to Indie pop; sometimes I’ll have old school hip hop phase, or maybe a sinister country music phase.
Laura Dawe once told me that my particular oeuvre of music is called ‘sad dad music’. That was definitely a Delta Blues phase. There’s this Muddy Waters greatest hits album, it's like, ‘his best: 1947 to 54’ or something. That’s my ultimate music; it's like, ‘sad dad transcends’.
What is your favorite color?
I’ve never been asked that question in an interview.
It’s an ever changing thing. At one point my favorite color was orange; now I think that it’s a ridiculous colour.
I think my favorite color may be black. There was a particular moment in my life and my painting where I had never painted with black, I’d never worn any black clothing: everything was a rainbow. And then there was this sort of moment where I said to myself, “Wait a second, I listen to Johnny Cash every day. Why don’t I just make everything black?”
Yeah, I think that was it. There was a particular moment perhaps where all of a sudden I was living in reality. It finally occurred to me that darkness is a serious part of the things that I make and my particular outlook on life.
Black is more than a color: it's got emotion and ideology, it's death and darkness. It’s the colour of the universe and unfathomably empty space.
What are you looking forward to?
I'm looking forward to writing about my art in the next few weeks or months and the things that it might hopefully open up for me. It’s proposal and competition season, I'm looking forward to seeing what that brings to me.
I’m looking forward the next time I go to New York, probably in the summer. Though there are exciting things happening in Toronto, I think that particularly in painting there’s a slight delay in the discourse that happens here compared to New York. Seeing it in person in New York is more exciting than looking at it all happening over Instagram.
I’m looking forward to the weather getting nicer, I’m wearing sneakers today which is incredibly exciting.