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Isaac Mann: Body Heat II, 2019; oil on canvas over panel; 20 × 24 Inches

Work / Art

Kinky, kooky characters take centre stage in Isaac Mann’s paintings

When asking a creative about whether or not they always knew this was the path they’d land on, it’s usually quite a polarising response. For Isaac Mann, an artist residing in Brooklyn, New York, his answer is that it wasn’t always clear cut. “Something I always new? Not really,” he remarks. “A couple of aimless years in college and five years touring in a punk bank are evidence of that.” Although what’s certain is that a serious interest in comic books and Marvel were key players throughout his younger years, which later led him to study printmaking, receiving an MFA from The New York Academy of Art, a BFA from The University of Wisconsin-Madison and, ultimately, to pursue a career in paint.

At present, Theirry Goldberg Gallery is currently showing Isaac’s first solo exhibition in New York, running until 22 December. Titled Dear Frances, it sees a series of paintings that encompass the effects of collage, considered compositions, vivid hues and beguiling arrangements in all its fine glory. Adding a personal touch, the title in fact derives his encounter with Frances Myers in his early 20s – the then-head of the UW-printing department and an inspiration to Isaac’s practice. “She made me believe this was a career I could have if I wanted it,” he tells It’s Nice That. Remaining a close friend and mentor after his graduation, this meant it caused great heartbreak when she passed away in 2014 – “like so many other students she taught over the years, I consider myself lucky to have met her. That’s where the title Dear Frances comes from.”

Pulling inspiration from the “inevitable” old names like Diego Rivera, Grant Woods, Max Beckmann, and early 20th century muralists and WPA-era painters – plus silver-age comic book artists, 80’s children’s book illustrators – Isaac’s work comes riddled with layers. Most influential, however, is when he visits a friend in the studio or attends their exhibitions. “It breeds this wonderful competition when I am blown away by their work, and naturally I want to try and make something better,” he explains. Well, a healthy dose of competition is certainly not a negative output for an artist.

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Isaac Mann: Slap, 2019; oil on canvas over panel; 24 × 20 Inches

Roused by his peers, Isaac takes to his studio with a sporadic process, drawing often and producing quick sketches. “Honestly,” he adds, “like most parts of my process, there’s a lot of doubt surrounding the beginning of the ideas. I tend to not see much worth in them until they’ve sat in my notebook for a while.” So much so, that sometimes, Isaac can spend a week “panicking” that he’ll never be able to come up with a “worthwhile composition” again, before he then rediscovers an older drawing from weeks ago. After this realisation – and relieving himself from any anxieties – he’ll begin to redraw and refine the idea, before moving onto collage. “Collage helps me to push the compositions,” he says. “I tend to shake up the composition once I’ve assembled it – add a little chaos.”

Once his compositions have been determined, Isaac steers his focus towards the layers and the development of his characters. He builds his pieces by first prepping the surface, then painting with oil in many thin layers – using transparent paint specifically for its “hypnotic” qualities. In terms of his subjects, he likes to think that these are entirely imagined characters but, of course, this isn’t the case. “Life forces itself in, and many of the figures take on certain attributes or nuances of people in my life,” he explains. “Occasionally, I’ll invite a personality into the painting intentionally, to boss around the others a little bit.”

The thing is, when constructing a narrative, character or layered painting as detailed as Isaac’s, you’d think that there would be a hidden agenda, or deeper meaning ready to prevail. But this isn’t quite the case. “You can plan what you’re going to say to someone – the words, the phrasing, all of it – but when it comes out you never know quite how the audience will react,” says Isaac. Looking for that sweet spot of uncertainty, Isaac gravitates towards an unknown space that forces the viewer to decipher their own narrative. “My intentions for these conversations never have much bearing on the final painting, or how the audience reads the paintings themselves. I think this is what keeps the paintings alive: the misreadings.”

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Isaac Mann: I’ve Been Dying Since the Day You Were Born, 2019; oil on canvas; 60 × 80 Inches

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Isaac Mann: Untitled, 2019; oil on canvas over panel; 60 × 48 Inches

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Isaac Mann: The Secret, 2019; oil on canvas over panel; 28 × 32 Inches

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Isaac Mann: The Kiss II, 2018; oil on canvas over panel; 24 × 27 Inches

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Isaac Mann: Slap Slap Kiss, 2019; oil on canvas; 63 × 78 Inches

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Isaac Mann: Bathers II, 2019; oil on canvas; 60 × 48 Inches

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Isaac Mann: Bathers I, 2019; oil on canvas; 60 × 48 Inches

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Isaac Mann: The Dinner Party, 2018; oil on canvas; 74 × 134 Inches

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Isaac Mann: Port of Entry, 2017; oil on canvas; 46 × 124 Inches