“Henry Isaacs: Gatherings, Recent Paintings of Portland and Beyond” features 58 of the artist’s paintings. And, as it uses both of the Maine Jewish Museum’s gallery spaces, it is the institution’s most ambitious exhibition to date.

Isaacs’ painting is easy to like: It is jaunty, loose and bold. He has an easily discernible, color-driven style that is immediately appealing and rooted in unexpectedly diverse systems sensibilities. While Isaacs’ paintings are instantly identifiable, they immediately take off in various directions, an effect highlighted by the show’s large scale.

Isaacs begins with a crack of the wit whip: a Down East lighthouse that he dares the viewer to take as ironic – or not. By itself, it’s a fine painting. In the context of appealing coastal landscapes, it dances with cliché but stands up enough to remind us that painters like Hopper popularized such images based on genuine appeal.

If you take Isaacs’ dare seriously this painting sets up numerous painterly assertions the artist employs or eschews throughout his oeuvre. We see a white lighthouse towering solidly up the right side of a small, square canvas. The structure pops with direct rays of afternoon sunlight that amplify the idea that west is to our right and the sea over which the building stands guard folds endlessly open to the left under the hill-shaped curve of the horizon. The white of the building stands in dazzling relief against coming-storm blue-grays of the sky. It’s a memorable moment of light we have all seen at some point, and Isaacs uses that memory sense on multiple levels: We have seen it in nature as well as in painting. Isaacs doubles down on the division of literal, remembered and imagined.

“After Twilight”

“After Twilight”

The sky can be seen as light or as color. As light, it is image. As color, it is painting, thatched together like the underside of a quilted tent. The white cone of a building contains some insider jokes for painters, such as Cezanne’s “cone, sphere, cylinder” aphorism, but sensory assertions as well. It is a true sculptural solid, standing at the edge of the swirling unknown. The base of the cone hints of impressionism with its obvious balance of warm yellow against cool complementary purple. The handrail fence looks to Andre Derain and the Fauvist moment of post-impressionism: solidly saturated colors that revel in their status as paint instead of pretending to be light.

While the lighthouse pretends to be the maitre d’, it is soon apparent there is nothing else like it in the whole show. No form gets as solid as the weatherized station. And it is only as you leave the exhibition that you truly see that the lookout sentry was a harbinger of modernist play, wit and irony – the exhibition’s critical bookend that sits at once on both sides of the shelf.

The vast majority of Isaacs’ paintings are landscapes rendered in his staccato-stroke patchwork bouquet, solid-seeming bits of color that weave among each other with a synchopated musicality. In this large-show context, Isaacs shows a huge range. A red bolt of a brush stroke sits up against the edge of the frame in an otherwise sunny sky. The textures of the seemingly simple surfaces build up at times like glazing and at other points like sculpture. Some volumes are modeled while most are faceted. Colors may be blended, but Isaacs often puts colors next to each other to mix them visually. Patches of colors act like distinct areas of a single color, but very often they feature many shifting pigments within one shape; an area of sky white might sit next to a patch we see as blue, and while the shape appears clear and unified, it may feature several blues as well as greens, purples and reds.

“Back Cove #4”

“Back Cove #4”

A suite of Barcelona night scenes may be the most unusual group in the show. Bounded by architecture, they take a purple-dark palette and stand it up flat like a wall, whereas Isaacs usually opens the sky to the endless horizon. One of these works is gridded thickly in the middle like a woven rug, and it is a rare place where the painted textures of the surface match literally to the rendered objects. Typically, Isaacs tries to make his paintings flicker between the doubled qualities of three-dimensional image and two-dimensional painting, like when we shift our eyes between seeing the sky as immaterial light and textured paint on a canvas. Rather than carefully navigating the incompatible systems of surface and image, Isaacs practically dances to the beat of this conundrum.

One curious aspect of “Gatherings” is Isaacs’ brushwork in relationship to scale. He uses a brush loaded with multiple unblended colors primarily on his smallest paintings. Those works make his painterliness more apparent everywhere, too. He is a master with the brush. He makes paintings that are appealing, vibrant but calm, so it’s easy to see the color virtuosity within them. Isaacs’ brush is dedicated to rhythm and direction. This is not always obvious, however: A focus on rendering prioritizes the skill of the artist, while looking to rhythms and directional flow prioritizes the visual experience of the viewer. This is the difference between the intellectually bristling Picasso and the savvily sensual Matisse. Isaacs is a Matissian.

Like Matisse, Isaacs doesn’t require a critical reading to take in his work. His painting certainly stands up to close scrutiny, but, unlike the heady brew of cubism, it invites viewers to dig deeper wherever and whenever they please. It is Isaacs’ ability to move in from both sides of the bookshelf that makes me believe he is one of those artists students will be discussing for many years to come.



Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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