Izaak Sacrebleu: Painting history and the beauty of awkwardness


Not long ago, I found myself sitting on a rug across from painter Izaak Sacrebleu in his garage studio in the heart of Kensington Market – drinking black coffee, smoking a cigarette and reconsidering the relevance of photorealism and contemporary art galleries. Izaak, recently graduated from OCAD University with a BFA in Drawing & Painting, has exhibited in various spaces around the city and boasts an eclectic body of work with a recurring exploration of composition and re-composition through painting, collage and frame building. Since the time of our interview he has begun a new series entitled beige is the new gucci and has continued to experiment with found objects and tougher textures. Below, we chat about his work and his thoughts on the contemporary art scene, appropriation and historical paintings.

When’s the first time you put paintbrush to paper?

That I can remember? I think I painted a picture of a sailboat with watercolour. I think it might still be on my mother’s fridge.

Were you always the artsy kid in school?

No, not at all. I didn’t really start painting until high school art class. I was sh*t at first and my life has essentially just been being really sh*t at things and then eventually impressing people with my artistic abilities (laughs). In Grade 12, I did this really photorealistic painting of a guy smoking a cigar that I called “Sunday Blunt” and everyone was was blown away… I think it was around then that I decided that painting was one of the only things that I was really good and actually cared to continue pursuing. You know, I used to be okay at math but math is pretty f*cking boring.

At least you were good at it. What program did you do in university?

Drawing and painting.

How would you say school has strengthened your practice?

Well, when I started at OCAD, I was in this sort of “I-like-painting-photorealistic-paintings-Chuck- Close-is-my-favourite-artist” type of mentality which I think is a predominant ideology when kids show up fresh to OCAD – until the intellectualization of the whole process beats the silly photorealistic crap out of them.

It’s always interesting to see the development of an artist’s body of work and seeing how things have changed from their first class to their last.

They always start out sharper.

Although we could even say that that’s what art has become. Looking through art history, it all just seems like a huge distancing from realism.

I think that a lot of it has to do with the question of why. Why am I making this realistic rendering out of paint? We’ve had this thing called photography for almost 200 years. Why don’t you take a f*cking picture of it?

Would you say it comes down to the process itself? Maybe painting as therapy? Or wanting to figure out what you’re painting and looking at it through a way that can help you discover it?

It really boils down to the question of materiality. Asking yourself why you choose certain materials and justifying it by making them obvious with expressionistic strokes and texture and evident brushwork. A couple of months ago there were several shows in a row (I won’t say who they were) at super contemporary galleries, all exhibiting very pristine work with no evidence of paint at all – or even of the painter, really… Other than the fact that you knew each one took a million years to paint. I see that and I kind of think: “That’s what I was doing when I was 18” (laughs). Why haven’t we come up with anything smarter?

Maybe once you reach a certain skill, you kind of stay put. Everyone is drawn to the idea of mastery.

That’s right. When I see a painting so realistic it seems like a photograph, I don’t really see it as art as I see it as artisanship. And it’s more accessible, it’s easier for people to acknowledge the talent. Art is pretentious. I don’t think it’s for the masses.

Maybe it’s more accessible because people can relate to it, which is why hyper-realism is blowing up now. Artists are taking that relatability and altering it within the realism of it.

Sure, but you wouldn’t buy a photograph of someone you don’t know… so why would you buy a photorealistic rendering of someone you don’t know? It’s like a passport photo that took someone a million hours to set the shutter off.

Going back to the idea of school, would you say it weakened your practice in any way?

I don’t think it did. I wasn’t very productive at school, which was probably some sort of objection to the crap that they were making me do… But at the same time all of that crap helped me filter out what I wanted to get out of it. Inward critique is definitely an important thing that they teach you there. Whether something is worth making or not.

Inward critique is essential for growth.

But a lot of people don’t actually realize that. I was recently talking to one of my friends who was still in school and he was mentioning someone breaking down and crying in critique because they had put so many painstaking hours into their work and the teacher just sh*t all over it. It takes a while to realize that that is them actually trying to help you… and I actually told my friend that everyone you see cry in a critique because of a professor’s response, after you graduate you never see them again. They just stop. They stop making. If you can’t accept outside critique that really brandishes your ability to be self critical.

What would you consider an unsuccessful body of work?

Well, something that doesn’t sell, for starters (laughs). Something that’s not interesting.

What’s your opinion on the role between the artist and the curator?

I don’t really know about that very much. There are power curators, for sure. It’s interesting because curation is an art in itself. Art is all about composition anyway and curating is composing, just in a different way.

What role does art history play in your work?

The first 20%. (laughs and gets up to bring back a work in progress)

So this one here is five percent done. It’s all art history right now, other than the fact that it’s my hand.

Your representation of historical paintings has a sort of loveable irony to it.

Yeah. You could say that the art history in my work is present as a dismissal of itself. I’m not trying to say anything about art history. I’m just painting pretty things that I think you’re going to enjoy. (laughs).The fact that my work always starts out with art history is because it’s so easy to produce when you have such a huge subject matter to take from whenever you want to start something. There are all of these original compositions which are really f*cking awkward. It poses a challenge to myself to make something that I don’t necessarily think is beautiful, beautiful. Or at least less awkward, and in the way I want it to be.

Would you ever exhibit your work with the original paintings?

Maybe not. I think it would make my pieces less powerful. First off, you’d have to be pretty familiar with art history to recognize what’s going on in that painting and where it’s from… but then, even if you are you might not pick up on the fact that it’s a rip-off of something. That ambiguity strengthens someone’s interaction with the painting. Having them wonder where they know it from in the back of their head, you know?

Have you been accused of “appropriation”?

Not necessarily. I think that maybe people aren’t telling me that they don’t enjoy them because they’re appropriations and instead are more like “You have to stop being f*cking derivative dude”… but those are mostly my asshole friends. (laughs) At least one person has said that I should be weary of having my paintings interpreted as studies… but I don’t know. Everything Francis Bacon made was a study, you know?

What’s wrong with the art scene?

People are charging for drinks nowadays because there’s so many young kids coming to shows (laughs). I can’t stand music at an art show because then it becomes a f*cking DJ event. What’s wrong with the art scene? I don’t know, I like the art scene. I think that, yes, you have to figure it out but it’s a pretty simple industry. I often say that it’s th easiest industry to get into because we have eight networking parties a week. You just have to figure out how to use that to your advantage. A lot of people are intimidated to go to art shows, I definitely have been in the past but it’s actually just a really easy way to get to know the people that you need to get to know. It’s like that “cool kid” clique in high school that you’re trying to get into and they’re kind of dismissive of you at first; but eventually you smoke cigarettes and they smoke cigarettes and everyone’s friends.

Follow Izaak’s work on his website here