Brushes by the Bushel: In the Studio with Henry Isaacs by Daniel Kany

Henry Isaacs’ Portland studio is an open and airy place filled with tiny painted sketches, canvases, piles of tubes of Gamblin oil paints and tin after tin crammed with hundreds of paintbrushes. The walls of the studio’s front room are filled with colorful and affably optimistic framed landscapes painted in Isaacs’ easily-recognizable style. The walls of his studio are covered with about a dozen paintings in process and scores of studies ranging from full size canvases to tiny squares dolloped thick with oil paint.

This is the story of why Isaacs has hundreds of uncleaned brushes sticking out of tins in his studio. It’s a cautionary tale.

Having travelled and taught around the world, It might not be surprising that a Maine artist like Henry Isaacs would have partied on a bus in Cuba with Jacques Derrida (well, sort of: the French philosophe was stiff and grumpy in the midst of the joy of others) or sat in a meeting with a brain like Jeremy Bentham’s. Bentham, after all, founded the University College of London, and Isaacs taught at the Slade School of Fine Art, the art school of the university spiritually founded by Bentham.

Henry Isaacs in his Portland studio.
Photo by Dan Kany

During the last decade, you would most likely have spotted Bentham in the halls of UCL. But Bentham, the spearhead of philosophical utilitarianism, is now visiting the United States and he is featured in “Like Life: Sculpture, Color and the Body, 1300-now,” a show at the Met Breuer (through July 22, 2018).

On June 6, 1832, the day Bentham died, the terms of his will established a continued “life” for him as an “auto-icon.”

And when I say Isaacs sat in a faculty meeting with Bentham’s brain, I literally mean Betham’s brain — chemically preserved in a large jar.

However wacky this may sound, the comparison between Bentham and Isaacs is anything but. While teaching at Mass Art in 1988, Isaacs rushed to help two men who accidentally spilled a pair of 50 gallon drums of Butanone during a delivery.

Butanone is also known as methyl ethyl ketone or MEK, a widely used industrial solvent that smells like a combination of butterscotch and acetone.

One of the men immediately left the scene. Isaacs helped the other. For this helpful gesture, Isaacs was rewarded with chemical narcosis, meaning he was poisoned to the point of passing out.

Isaacs in his Portland studio. Photo by Dan Kany

Another token of his helpfulness was a lesion on the top of his brain, which was pickled, to a certain extent, like Bentham’s. This condition took years to discover and then years to find a treatment which finally took place in Sweden. (Saab Aeronautics recognized and treated what they call “painters’ disease.”)  Isaacs has had to absolutely minimize petro chemicals from his life.

For a while, Isaacs worked in acrylics, but the quick-drying plasticky paints didn’t allow for him to push the paint around on the canvas, to paint the way he preferred to paint, with thick strokes pulled through wet paint already on the surface. He tried pastels as well, but found them too dusty,

Isaacs’ Portland studio. Photo by Dan Kany

Isaacs had met Bob Gamblin while teaching at the Slade. Gamblin, whose company was based in Portland, Oregon, was trying to market his new paints and no one at the English school even wanted to talk to him, so they sent the junior American professor to meet with him. Gamblin and Isaacs hit it off from the start. In 1991, Gamblin created a new paint recipe using pure poppy seed oil and sent samples to Isaacs. (Isaacs has found that paints even by the leading brands contain solvents even when they are not listed; such exposure is dangerous for him.) “Bob rescued my studio,” explains Isaacs. “From that point, I have used Gamblin paints. And now, his pure poppy seed recipe is the stuff that’s in the marketplace.”

Isaacs paints with vegetable oil from the grocery store and never washes the Winsor & Newton brushes he buys in bulk for the less than $2 each. Ultimately, he breaks them up and recycles what parts of them he can. “I use brushes by the bushel. I have to.” With this, Isaacs pulls a brush dripping with oil out of a tin and wipes the thick dollop of grayish blue goo from its bristles. Without hesitating, he pushes it through the thick paint piled on his palette and begins to rework a small picture of the underside of a bridge. The wet paint is buttery and Isaacs moves the brush about the surface with wizened confidence.

Because painting with pure oil can make the works take weeks to dry (“Alone, Bob’s paints take three to five weeks to dry,” he comments), Isaacs uses tiny amounts of Galkyd. He cannot use turpentine, Turpenoid or driers.

Some of Isaacs’ “notes.” Photo by Dan Kany

“I am compulsive about painting every day,” he notes. Pointing to a wall filled with 150 tiny, loosely painted canvases, he continues, “For every project I do, I make 50-100 of these little guys – hundreds of these ‘notes.’ These are for a project for a hotel in Marrakech, Morocco. These are beautiful schools, madrasas. I am working on making a huge painting that captures this kind of interior space made 2D. As far as my studio practice goes, I work from these ‘notes.’ I take no pictures. I rely on them even from years ago. These (he points with his brush) were painted on site four years ago.”

On another wall hang 75 of Isaacs’ “notes” he made in Guatemala in May. He muses: “These are little pieces of memory. My job, here in the studio, is to put them together.”

 

Industrial Landscapes — A Curator’s Experience by Janice Moore

Industrial  Maine: Our Other Landscape opened at the University of Southern Maine – Lewiston/Auburn Atrium Gallery on March 12, 2018. The exhibition included 70 works of art from 27 artists from across the State of Maine working in a broad range of media. The exhibition was authorized by USM-LA Dean Joyce Gibson. Robyn Holman, the former curator of the Atrium Gallery, was instrumental in helping me create and stage the exhibition. Randy Estes, the facilities manager at USM-LA, oversaw installation. I was responsible for the concept and served as guest curator.

After initial promotion of the exhibition and the opening, during the last weekend of March, I was informed that the University had removed 3 paintings by Maine artist Bruce Habowski from the exhibition. Bruce’s paintings have appeared in a number of respected galleries and museums, including the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and the Portland Museum of Art. The paintings by Bruce submitted and selected for the Industrial Maine exhibition were Maine “urbanscapes”. The paintings were selected because of their strength and appropriateness to the theme.

I was not informed in advance or included in a dialogue about the decision to remove the art before the University took action. In the days and weeks that followed, I learned that the paintings were removed at the direction of University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings. My understanding is that President Cummings chose to remove the paintings based upon a complaint from a member of the community arising out of unlawful sexual contact for which the artist was convicted in 1999 and served a jail sentence. I do not know the specific nature of the complaint to the University, the relationship of the complaining party to the incident or the University, or what steps the University took to investigate and explore alternative courses of action before removing the art.

After speaking with President Cummings and communicating with Robyn Holman, the artist, members of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, and artists participating in the exhibition, I elected not to rehang the exhibit or try to fill the empty spaces where the paintings had hung. I understood that President Cummings had faced a really difficult decision, but felt that rehanging the exhibition would erase the University’s action. Instead, I installed a 3×5 placard in the empty spaces. The placard read:

This painting has been removed by order of the USM President.

-Janice L. Moore, Guest Curator, Industrial Maine: Our Other Landscape

On Sunday, May 6, 2018, the Maine Sunday Telegram/Portland Press Herald ran a positive review of the exhibition by Maine art critic Dan Kany, with a companion article on the removal of the art by reporter Bob Keyes. I gave interviews for both the Kany review and the Keyes article, but declined to identify the artist out of respect for his privacy and concern for the victims. My understanding is that the paper identified and disclosed the name of the artist and the nature of the offense because the artist was easily identified from promotional materials for the exhibition and the criminal history was a matter of public record. My understanding is that President Cummings declined to give an interview for the Keyes article, but the University gave a brief statement explaining its action. The Keyes article appeared with a photo of the placard.

Almost immediately after the Kany review and Keyes article appeared in the Portland paper, I began receiving calls and emails from advocacy groups, reporters, attorneys and a number of others defying categorization. The National Coalition against Censorship released a statement opposing the University’s action as censorship. Trolls posted on my social media accounts. In the week that followed, President Cummings gave a number of media interviews defending his decision. He emphasized the nature of the artist’s offense and the University’s obligation to create a safe space for University students passing through the Atrium.

I declined all media requests after the interviews I gave to Dan Kany and Bob Keyes. In my view, the Keyes article had accurately reported the story and any further statements or interviews would only contribute to prolonging a news cycle that might be hurtful to victims, the artist, or the students.

I was unaware that, during this time, in the week following the publication of the Kany review and Keyes article in the Portland paper, the University removed the placards.

Throughout this entire episode, I have struggled with the appropriate, ethical response. While I strongly oppose the University’s unilateral decision to remove the paintings and subsequent removal of the placards without first engaging in any meaningful dialogue around alternatives, I am also very sensitive to the interests of victims, the artists, and the community. I have struggled with a number of questions. Was the victim ever consulted? What was the complaining party hoping to accomplish? What was the actual threat to student well-being? There was nothing on the face of the art that presented a “trigger.” Was the University concerned that a protest by the complaining parties might pose a threat to the emotional safety of University students? If so, was it possible to contain a protest or take other action to address the concerns of the complaining party? Didn’t the public controversy caused by the University’s unilateral removal of the art actually amplify the issue, putting the “triggering” conversation not just in front of all University students, but in front of an even wider audience? Was there a way the interests of the complaining party, the victim, the artist, and the University could be reconciled short of removing the art? Was removing art from a standing exhibition based upon a complaint arising out of the past conduct of the artist actually the best option?

I was confronted, too, with the issue of denying access to the art based on the past behavior of the artist. I wondered about the appropriateness of removing art due to an offense committed by the artist nearly 20 years ago. I am acutely aware of the interests of victims, but how as a society do we ask artists to engage with their communities after they have been convicted and served a sentence? Is it meaningful to talk about rehabilitation? Should artists require the permission and consent of victims to present their art? What about the art itself? Should the community be denied access to art based on the past behavior of artists?

This entire experience raised these and a host of other highly complex issues that extend well beyond this single art exhibition. What are the responsibilities of museums, galleries, and curators with regard to artists who may have engaged in misconduct? What are the responsibilities of critics and teachers? Should curators and gallery owners conduct criminal record checks? Should artists be asked to sign statements attesting to a “clean” history? What counts as an offense that warrants rejection or removal of art? Should we ban the movies of Woody Allen? Take down the Picassos?

I set out as a guest curator to create an exhibit that presented the works of artists who – like me—are making art inspired by Maine’s industrial landscape. In that I think I was successful. Ultimately, I was able to execute an idea and create an exhibition which presented a different view of Maine. Some artists created new work for the exhibition, which was immensely satisfying. I was able to meet and visit some of the artists I knew only by reputation and connect with them. I learned their processes and motivations. I met faculty, staff and students and was immensely grateful for their overwhelmingly positive support. Contemporary Maine art got to exist in a place of learning in a city where industry has been hugely significant for over a century.  That was positive.

Bruce Habowski, “Message”, New work in progress, oil on canvas, 30” x 40”, 2017, photo courtesy of the artist

Over the course of the exhibition, I was able to communicate with many of the artists and get their feedback. There was no consensus on the best course of action, but I was able to hear them and to listen. I was also able to turn to the Union of Maine Visual Artists as a valuable resource for advice, opinions, and ideas on individual and collective responses. Our Portland chapter met as a community and discussed many of the potential implications. We were able to do this with care and consideration from multiple perspectives. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t always agree on what an appropriate response should look like, but we were able to talk and explore ideas in real time sitting together around a table. When events seemed overwhelming and I needed help, the UMVA showed up both individually and collectively. This community supported me. I was profoundly moved by this and I am incredibly grateful for it. To be part of a community with a shared passion and to connect and support each other even when our opinions differed is a deeply important and meaningful thing.

In the course of creating an exhibition focused primarily on artistic merit and my own vision around a single theme, I found myself operating in unplanned and seemingly uncharted waters, far from what I wanted or ever set out to do.

I know I have learned from the experience. I hope we all have. I find myself, though, with many more questions than answers. The questions, I think, are ones we are confronting collectively. I’m optimistic, if we approach our challenges as opportunities for meaningful engagement and dialogue, we can work out better answers.