Jeffrey Isom: Endangered Wood Stork
To say that artists in general and painters in particular aren’t highly valued in 21st century America except as objects of ridicule—any five-year-old could crank out a Jackson Pollock drip painting being the classic rebuke of the armchair philistine who’s never bothered to crack open a coffee table art book let alone take an introductory art history class—is an understatement. Happily, that hasn’t always been the case. Select elite painters once enjoyed rock star status alongside kings, popes and other noble personages as official court painters who chronicled the lives and times of the high and mighty in paint. Alexander The Great, for instance, had his court painter Apelles immortalize Campaste, a favorite concubine. While painting her, Apelles fell in love with the nude model. Rather than mete out some ghastly punishment, Alexander gave Campaste to Apelles because he was in such awe of his painter’s skill. If Alexander probably won’t be getting a Christmas card from Gloria Steinem anytime soon, we’re reminded that skilled artists were held in high regard in ancient Greece.
Prior to the widespread dissemination of photography in the 19th century, painters were likened to magicians who could miraculously conjure up hyper realistic objects out of thin air from colored mud with a bristly magic wand . The greater the illusionism and verisimilitude captured on canvas, the more thunderous the applause. An entire sub-genre, trompe l’oeil (trick the eye), emerged from this delight in dazzling and fooling the mind’s eye (in terms of color, texture, light and shadow, positioning objects in space, etc.) As usual, there’s nothing new under the sun. A famous painting competition held in 4th century B.C Athens pitted Zeuxis and Parrhasius against one another. Zeuxis’ painting of grapes was purportedly so realistic that birds flew down to peck at the faux fruit only to be sadly disappointed. Zeuxis appeared to be the clear-cut winner. Parrhasius then asked Zeuxis to pull back a curtain to unveil his own entry concealed behind the curtain only to discover the curtain itself was a painting (Surrealist René Magritte, of Ceci n’est pas une pipe fame, would chuckle) Zeuxis had fooled birds but Parrhasius had fooled Zeuxis. Parrhasius was declared the winner.
Few subjects have enjoyed the longevity of the still life. Zeuxis’ grapes may be an extreme example but the genre has traditionally functioned as demonstration pieces for painters to showcase theirs skills—the way light plays off objects, recreating different textures, etc. (e.g a shiny copper bowl filled with fruit refracting natural light streaming in from a window like a funhouse mirror). Additionally, they do double duty as memento mori— reminders of death (nature morte translates to ‘dead nature’ in French): A flickering candle placed next to a skull, dead flowers strewn besides living ones and so on. Paul Cezanne’s ubiquitous apples aren’t so much meditations on mortality but rather conceptual documents of his struggles rendering a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface. Nonetheless, because his paintings took so long to complete he began using wax fruit when the real ones started decomposing before his eyes.
Pablo Picasso, that titan of 20th century painting, was branded a degenerate artist along with many other modernists yet bravely refused to flee Nazi occupied Paris during World War II. Banned from exhibiting during the war, he still managed to paint scores of cubist-inflected still lifes (skulls, candles, animal heads) that strike us today as covert petit anti-war statements (not the bold in-your-face gesture of Guernica that he was interrogated about) under the noses of the Gestapo, who would frequently harass him in his apartment.
Picasso may have felt like he was painting under house arrest, but Jeffrey Isom, the winner in the Incarcerated Artist category for the second iteration of The Sheridan Art Prize, literally creates all of his artwork from behind bars at San Quentin State Prison, where he’s currently serving a life sentence under California’s Three Strikes law (Exactly what constitutes a strike or “serious felony” in California can seem nebulous at times. In some states, there are people serving life sentences for relatively minor offenses such as marijuana possession or bribery).
Isom’s winning Endangered Wood Stork (2020) combines trompe l’oeil and still life. Not surprisingly, this painting, along with many other Incarcerated Artist entries, is rich in detail and labor intensive. These folks have a lot of time on their hands. While serving time, Isom has tackled a wide variety of subjects ranging from realistic portraits of a world-weary Marilyn Monroe to painting a rusty old blue Ford pickup truck parked in front of a fiery orange backdrop of fall foliage as a wide-eyed stag with a deer in the headlights expression looks on with behind the motor city relic (Return to Nature). The latter is the artist’s commentary on climate change and the role the burning of fossil fuels has played in throwing the planet’s thermostat out of whack.
Endangered Wood Stork stands in stark contrast to last year’s Incarcerated Artist winning entry. Keith Loker’s bat-out-of-hell Porsche is an exaltation of speed, freedom, and escape. Isom’s hyper realistic waterfowl (probably done from a photograph), on the other hand, is set stiffly within a noxious dark brown gaseous void—quite literally a still life. Beneath his signature, Isom writes ‘San Quentin 2020’. It may have been painted from prison during the Pandemic when the entire world was in lock-down (or soon would be) and ordered to shelter-in-place. Death was in the air.
This small avian portrait (acrylic on canvas board—18” x 24”) was conceived along the lines of a traditional memento mori: “I painted this piece to bring attention to the decline of the Wood Stork and to bring awareness to the many precious birds we are losing due to climate change”. By depicting this particular Wood Stork outside its natural habitat with nothing to distract the eye around it, the artist forces us to focus exclusively on the subject at hand. That its realism and pervasive brown tonality recall the Dutch old masters is no accident. Isom cites Rembrandt, the master at fusing light and dark into canvases that practically glow, as a major influence. Isom in turn skillfully runs the value spectrum here from the near black of the bleak, claustrophobic backdrop to the bright polar white of the Wood Stork’s feathers and plumage. And like certain Rembrandt portraits with their pocked faces, Isom finds some of the birds he paints both beautiful and ugly at the same time. If Endangered Wood Stork hardly attains Rembrandt’s unique ability to transmute living flesh into spirit, Isom has immortalized an individual living being with dignity and a psychologic presence. It’s a technical tour de force whose minute detail approaches trompe l’oeil—especially the way the Wood Stork’s long stiff neck (mimicking petrified wood sprouting barnacles) contrasts sharply with the wispy soft whites and tans of feathers and plumage.
One of Isom’s most fascinating paintings (not entered into the competition) is Herod’s Temple, a vivid reimagining of the biblical king’s sandstone and sky blue fortress that’s redolent of both an elaborate sand castle and, more eerily, a maximum security prison. One is tempted to say seeing palm trees at a prison like those lining the outer wall’s of Herod’s massive temple complex must be a mirage. Surprisingly, San Quentin actually does have palm trees (along with other botanical delights) as part of its apparently quite beautiful gardens overseen by inmate caretakers. Herod, of course, is infamous for ordering the murder of male babies two years and younger in order to snare the baby Jesus in its bloody net (depicted in many paintings of The Massacre of the Innocents). It’s a safe bet that more than a few inmates who have been convicted of murder and executed over the years were in fact innocent. Although San Quentin is now a State prison managed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, it began as the first private (i.e. for profit) prison in the United States in 1852 as a prison ship docked off Angel Island to house the overflow of criminals who poured into California during the Gold Rush. And while nobody on death row has been executed in California since 2006, San Quentin is currently the only prison in California with a death row for male inmates (Under Governor Newsom, death row is supposedly being phased out by 2024, where it will be transformed into “something innovative and anchored in rehabilitation,” according to a CDCR spokesperson.)
Isom, for his part, hopes to demonstrate through his art that our deeply-ingrained belief system of throwing away the key and turning a blind eye rather than rehabilitation is the solution to stemming crime is misguided. “Through ‘Arts in Correction’ I have worked with many artists whom are incarcerated as myself. We all get along and appreciate not only our talents but the opportunity to show the world that people do change”. To this end, he also feels that art is not only therapeutic but plays a large role in his rehabilitation and eventual release.
Although one might be hard-pressed to find a glimmer of hope in the dark ether enveloping Endangered Wood Stork, Isom sees a light at the end of the tunnel. If he does indeed secure his freedom and possibly pursues art as a vocation, he’ll discover it’s a tough gig. Other than inviting a single painter to The White House once every four years to create an official (and usually god awful) portrait of the sitting president (Gilbert Stuart they’re not. Every American is familiar with Stuart’s unfinished portrait of George Washington on the one-dollar bill), visual artists are, sadly, largely regarded as societal pariahs from sea to shining shore. Perhaps incarcerated artists like Isom can help lead the way in showing the rest of us that art has the power to positively transform lives, and that artists do in fact have a vital role to play in mainstream society. If Alexander The Great wasn’t exactly a proto- feminist, he was a beacon of enlightenment about the value art and the artist play in a culture and its civic dialogue compared to the likes of Joe Biden, Donald Trump and virtually every American president who preceded them over the past few centuries.
~~ Harry Roche