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The Courier-Journal Visual Arts

Ron Isaacs' painted wooden objects fool the eye

by DIANE HEILENMAN The Courier-Journal
From Jan. 10, 1999

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Artist Ron Isaacs held one of his creations, made of painted birch plywood. It will be among the works in his Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery show in Louisville.
Photo by Sam Haverstick

If sales and personal satisfaction are good measurements, painter Ron Isaacs is a resounding success.

He said he sells everything he wants to sell to collectors as likely to live in New York and Chicago as Lexington or Louisville.

He has more exhibition requests than he can handle for his signature trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") pieces. He works in wood, creating what amounts to an optical illusion, making the viewer question whether the subject of the piece is real or a representation.

Isaacs works daily in his studio -- "I always have to be doing something with my hands" -- and he loves his other job too. He has taught painting and drawing at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond for 28 years.

His work makes up the latest installment of the "Master Makers" series at the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery in Louisville. The gallery's curator, Brion Clinkingbeard, said Isaacs "just fits that category so splendidly. What he does is fabulous."

The exhibition, which opens Wednesday, features about 30 pieces borrowed from Isaacs and Isaacs collectors.

But with all his success, the 57-year-old Isaacs is the first to say, paradoxically:

"I'm not that fascinated with the trompe l'oeil painter because I know it's not that hard to do. . . . I think a lot of realism is really boring. I'm almost surprised I ended up being who I am."

However, he likes to quote artist Claes Oldenburg, who is known for making something ordinary into something extraordinary, like a giant soft-sculpture toilet or an ice-cream-bar image that resembles melting alphabet letters.

Like Oldenburg, Isaacs said, "the longer I look at something, the more mysterious it becomes."

Still, he insists his works are not philosophically deep, only visually rich, or at least he hopes so.

"My approach to life is like my approach to art magazines: I just look at the pictures."

Isaacs has built a solid artistic career out of visual fictions that are sometimes gee-whiz simple and, often, not so simple.

He builds clothing out of plywood, then paints it.

He may find an elbow-length leather glove in a vintage clothing store and reproduce it in Finnish plywood.

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Ron Isaacs, an art professor, kicks back in his studio in his Madison County home. Across from him is a jacket made of birch plywood.
Photo by Sam Haverstick

Or, more often, he opts for a complex composition like a blue dress, perhaps a thrift-shop treasure, made more precious done in wood and decorated with individual leaves and flowers, also done in wood.

ONE OF HIS most intriguing works on display is "Fiction/Non-fiction," a visual joke that is on one side a black tea dress -- done in plywood -- and on the other a duplicate tea dress in black twigs -- also done in plywood.

Piling fiction upon fiction is the way Isaacs likes to work. The skillful trompe l'oeil effect is secondary, he said.

His constructions are at once amusing, evocative, provocative, visually rich and salable.

Something like a glove goes for around $600. Larger constructions sell for up to $8,000.

In a way, his work is a function of his own collector's impulse.

"Objects just accumulate around me," Isaacs said.

His studio in his house outside Richmond is as much a repository for objects as for his art.

There are rat traps, an astonishing array of variations on a ball, crab claws, a herd of dinosaurs, real twigs and leaves, robots and -- most eye-catching -- a selection of spike-studded calf-weaners, a reminder that Richmond may be the center of the Isaacs' artistic universe but it is still basically a rural area.

Isaacs and his wife, Judy, a retired teacher who is a native of Long Island, N.Y., say they feel lucky to be able to come home to the quiet of Kentucky and to the natural splendor of the woods and lake that surround their house.

He works almost constantly in his studio, where an overlay of fine sawdust is contained in a separate woodworking room.

His easel is set next to a wall-mounted television.

"It's amazing how little attention TV takes," he said.

His rolling palette table holds a 14-pound ball of paint scrapings, a still developing symbol of the central role of painting in his art.

Isaacs said he considers what he does painting, even though it does require a lot of design, engineering and woodworking skills.

"They're sort of like still lifes," he said of his plywood works. "Everything is always from life."

Isaacs works in three main areas.

Clothing is central: "I keep going back to it. It's such a remarkable image. It (becomes) these pieces of a human being."

Plant material is important too: "I keep falling in love with leaves."

And then there are the works that are about surfaces. He jokingly calls these geometrical collages his "Rust and Rot" series.

Born in Cincinnati in 1941 and raised in Jackson County, Ky., he graduated from Berea College and from Indiana University.

His wood cutouts began with roses, he said. He had been taken with a reproduction of a bunch of roses in a magazine and wanted to incorporate it in a painting, so he mounted it on a cutout piece of wood and attached it to the canvas.

He called them "jigsaw paintings" and continued in that vein for about two years, doing paintings with cutouts on them.

"After I did about three of these, I said, 'Why do I need a canvas? I can make a painting any shape I want.' . . . Then came the raincoat piece."

It was his own London Fog raincoat and it "went crazy" with all sorts of things sticking out of the pockets. Whimsical and amusing more than mysterious, it was a seminal work and was very difficult technically at the time, Isaacs said. Today, it looks crude to him.

It was the beginning of his signature style, where he said the basic notion is to "set something up as real and find a way to violate it."

In other works, like the 1996 geometric composition "Tell Me Everything," a linear, almost musical composition of things like corbels, a trowel, empty picture frames, leaves and such, the impulse is almost pure design. "I'm designing the (blank) spaces of the wall," he said.

"IT'S A GAME," Isaacs continued. He keeps doing it because it's fun and he enjoys the paradox of realism.

The evolution of his career can be traced through exhibitions, he said.

It all started in 1972 when a work was selected for an exhibition at the College of Mount St. Joseph near Cincinnati by Steven Berkowitz, director of the Center for Contemporary Art in Chicago. He encouraged Isaacs to find a Chicago gallery to sell his art. Isaacs did and today is represented by about six galleries in different states, including Toni Birkhead Gallery in Cincinnati and Heike Pickett Gallery in Lexington.

Master Makers: Ron Isaacs opens Wednesday with a reception from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at the Kentucky Art and Craft Gallery, 609 W. Main St. The exhibition ends Feb. 27. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.