Available Works: Isaacs, Rufus
Artist Rufus Isaacs produces iconic and sweeping paintings which embody the inquisitive spirit of our age, providing a restless and telling examination of our suppositions about the foundations of truth and knowledge. These are paintings which render instantly recognisable images unfamiliar and strange. Reworking compositions by Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) and others, Isaacs uses an emotionally raw representational style which suggests the infl uence of the seminal British painter Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992). For his exhibition at Meller Merceux Isaacs has worked with sources including da Vinci’s iconic Vitruvian Man (1487), Head of Christ (c. 1494), Lady with an Ermine (c. 1489), and Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665).
One of the most affecting and resonant pieces in Isaacs’ exhibition at Meller Merceux is his Mona Lisa Triptych, a bold refl ection on one of the most celebrated images of all time. In this revisionary
version, the notorious ambiguity of the Mona Lisa’s smile is translated into an evocative and mysteriously blurred painterly register. Her famous face is both immediately recognisable and yet strangely distant, receding into what Gilles Deleuze calls the “shallow depth” of blank, indeterminate fi elds of colour.
The expressive and distorting fi lters through which Isaacs views da Vinci may appear unsettling, but they prove to be an extremely potent articulation of the artist’s concerns surrounding contemporary attitudes to categories such as truth and history.
Isaacs’ radical approach to his imagery can be clarifi ed by considering his relationship with the broad cultural concerns of modernism. Coinciding with Einstein’s theory of relativity and a perceived failure of moral and political discourse, the modernist movement in the arts made its major objective the search for new ways of seeing; visual languages which would do justice to the seismic philosophical and social upheaval of the early twentieth century. This search famously saw artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henri
Matisse and others move beyond the obligation to depict the world with realist accuracy, and instead explore vivid and challenging new forms of beauty. Painters began to view the world through fragmented and shifting lenses, their work evoking not just the visual world, but the emotional and spiritual responses
Distinguished by their powerfully emotive brushwork, the paintings of Rufus Isaacs demonstrate a fascinating conversation with the visual legacy of modernism. His technique is in part a product of his his interest in Francis Bacon, an artist who from the mid-1940s onwards produced some of the most extraordinary responses to André Breton’s Surrealist maxim “Beauty must be convulsive or will not be at all”. Bacon developed a pioneering way of depicting the human body at the nexus of the confl icting desires and energies it provokes. His subjects often appear disfi gured, truncated or augmented by unnatural-looking prostheses.
Just as Rufus Isaacs innovates by reinterpreting the artistic past, so one of Bacon’s most celebrated pieces is itself a direct engagement with a 17th century master – Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953). This incandescent work retains the overall compositional features of the Spanish artist’s piece, but replaces the pontiff’s fixed, judicious gaze with a grotesque scream, his fi gure emerging as a spectral presence out of sweeping, gestural strokes of the brush. The painting shocked those who held fast to the idea of infallible religious authority by placing the head of the Catholic Church at the centre of its visual maelstrom.
Isaacs has created his own distinctive equivalent of this approach, placing great importance on the human body as a dynamic graphical element, evidencing skillful management of movement and focus as means of conveying a questioning approach to cultural history. By choosing an instantly-recognisable image such as Vitruvian Man and pushing it to the edge of recognition, he calls into question our relationship to the past. The viewer is summoned into a dreamlike realm, where the symbols and ideals of the Renaissance past are called instantly to mind and yet rendered foreign and beautifully strange, floating in a spatial limbo which seems to suggest that the historical imagination can never entirely truly grasp the minds of those who have gone before it.
So the chaotic energies conveyed by Isaacs’ style of painting should not be confused with a chaotic working process. Just as Bacon’s output was guided by a ruthless perfectionism which saw the artist reject or destroy many of his own canvasses, so the radical energy of Isaacs’ work is held in check by a deep commitment to channelling this force into the most resonant visual structure he can conceive of, to maximise their sensory impact. His images retain the enduring and emblematic power of the masterpieces they evoke while simultaneously developing a muscular and kinetic quality which suggests a recognition of the fact that an artist’s approach to the past must necessarily be coloured by his involvement in the contingencies of contemporary life.
But what are these contemporary contingencies, and how are Isaacs’s enigmatic representations relevant to them? The challenges posed by the modernists to subsequent generations of artists remain startlingly relevant, not least since the existential problems dramatised by Picasso, Gauguin, Bacon and others simply have not disappeared. On the contrary, the ground upon which we base our ideas of cultural and historical certainty may be argued to be shifting more rapidly than ever. The arts and social sciences have been alive with an awareness that history is constructed in the telling since the work of thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault began to sweep through universities in the 1960s and 70s. An analogous awareness now colours the world of science, as researchers recognise the fact that their discoveries are partly determined by the deeper motivations which direct their research, and relatedly, the manner in which their questions are constructed. In recent years issues such as animal cloning have increasingly drawn science into the realm of social and moral interpretation, while the observation in September 2011 of the sub-atomic neutrino particle travelling faster than the speed of light has shaken our idea of the physical constitution of the world to its very foundations.
As an artist of the contemporary zeitgeist, the question of how such uncertainties filter into the popular imagination is of crucial importance to Rufus Isaacs. In recent years, popular representations of “truth” and historical veracity have begun to echo the contentious and changing nature of those categories within the academic world. In particular, the notion that history is more vivid and full of secrets than received accounts would have us believe has swept through popular consciousness, radically changing our relationship with the truth. Isaacs’ tumultuous and dramatic treatments of iconic historical imagery are uniquely well-suited to a contemporary culture in which truth is now a fluid and mobile commodity, subject to radical alterations in a world of scoop, spin and “sexing-up”. The rapid globalisation of the world’s economies and cultures means that thinkers are increasingly aware of the fact that any one perception of historical truth is likely to reflect specific and local cultural concerns; a given event may read very differently when viewed through a different cultural or linguistic lens. This is graphically demonstrated by Hollywood’s increasingly liberal approach to facticity when adapting historical narrative, as evidenced by films such as Braveheart or Marie Antoinette. In the world of the popular best-seller, books such as Dan Brown’s worldwide hit The Da Vinci Code reflect our current obsession with the idea that far from being a distant monument, historical narratives and institutions are really treasure-troves of scandal and mystery, ripe for discovery and reinterpretation. So, in these kaleidoscopic contexts, what does it mean for Rufus Isaacs to regenerate da Vinci’s iconic compositions through his distorting historical lens?
The arrival of Isaacs’ paintings at Meller Merceux is particularly fitting in that it coincides with the conclusion of Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan at The National Gallery. The exhibition is another manifestation of our contemporary fascination for rediscovering the past, taking the groundbreaking step of focussing on the Renaissance master as a painter, rather than as an inventor or scientist. Da Vinci embodies restless curiosity and discovery, but also an era with striking similarities to our own, in which the paths to truth and knowledge were changing exponentially, with the birth of humanist thought and rapid advances in anatomical studies revolutionising the intellectual landscape. He is the emblem of an age in which the arts and sciences were considered to be intimately linked and when portraiture could be considered a scientific and religious investigation into “the motions of the soul”. On the evidence of the feverish reception given to the National Gallery exhibition, Leonardo is as relevant to popular concerns as ever.
Perhaps this is because we are once again living through an era of paradigm shifts, in which contemporary artists such as Rufus Isaacs skilfully gear their representative styles to account for changing relationships with the past and with understandings of how the universe works. Just as Wyndham Lewis described Bacon as “perfectly in tune with our time,” so Isaacs’ revisionary engagement with da Vinci is a timely expression of the contemporary fascination with re-evaluating claims to truth and historical understanding.
As a medium through which to view icons of the artistic past, Isaacs’ emotive and abrasive brushstrokes suggest a troubled partiality of vision, yet they carry a profound cultural currency. They denote a tension between on the one hand, a heartfelt reaching towards the sense of stability and certainty which categories such as truth and history may have offered in the past, and on the other, the realisation that this is a past which we can never entirely grasp; one that perhaps we can only glimpse at through the distorting lens of Isaacs’ vividly rendered surfaces.