Jack Bishop ambles into Studio 21 right on time for his interview with The Coast, bringing his dog Ted along with a gentle move of the leash. He’s at the Doyle Street gallery to talk about his new collection of paintings–called Road Trip Playlist–because “it's just easier for me to talk about the paintings when I'm looking at them,” he explains. Not that these are the sorts of pieces that need an explanation to be felt: Bishop’s art always has a visceral appeal to it, the works in Road Trip Playlist included.
In his back catalogue of renderings of highways and off-ramps–and the cookie-cutter, consumer wastelands they lead to–Bishop’s always painted the scenes that wallpaper our collective memories, what he describes as “almost over-painted” composites of chain crop-ups that litter highway exits. “Group of Seven is something that people just kind of always seem to go back to, like this celebrated movement that kind of gave Canada its identity,” Bishop says. “And so, in my previous work, it was about making fun of this idea—of it being a pristine landscape that's untouched by man, and nature in its purest form—by adding like a parking lot, or billboards.”
But these days, Bishop’s not interested in rest spots and exhales. His newest paintings are a gulp of oxygen hitting your lungs at 100 kilometres an hour, scenes set on the open highway. “They're kind of portraits, but they're also like in a landscape, but the landscape’s all kind of from memory. So it's this kind of gray area that I'm bringing these kinds of formats together and then making almost, like, abstract paintings too,” Bishop explains while standing next to a four-by-eight foot painting he made last year.
While each piece contains a small car on a massive highway–most of them complete with mini versions of Bishop, his wife Jamie and Ted the dog depicted within–that’s not where the self-documentation ends. It lives in the colours, the shapes, even the way the paint is applied to the canvas. “It's like a, almost like a more of a meta thing. The car signifies us, but like the actual painting is like, it's all part of me,” he says.
Standing inside the gallery and looking at Bishop’s art, the works of painter Willem de Kooning become an easy comparison. The same way the king of the abstract expressionist movement asked what painting meant–what it was for, what it gave the viewer–by experimenting with different applications and ways of using a brush, Bishop’s works take on an almost 3D quality. Throughout Road Trip Playlist, clouds and shrubbery often lift off the canvas in big globules.
These paintings need to be looked at head-on, yes, but also off to the side, so you can see the shadow the paint blobs leave. In fact, the only wrong way to look at a Bishop painting is to see it solely through a screen: Just like de Kooning’s, these paintings need to be witnessed IRL to be experienced fully–which you can do at Studio 21 Tuesdays through Saturdays until April 4.
“I hadn't painted this self portrait since like, art school, basically. And I was completely done with that idea,” Bishop says. “I thought it was kind of this like, vain sort of thing to: Paint yourself. But somehow I found my way back into it.” Maybe it’s the simple truth that, as with any artist, anything he made was gonna be about him, anyhow. These paintings are him because “I'm a kind of a colourful person,” he says, looking at the chartreuse sky of his canvas titled “And the rain came down, down, down, down.”
The use of bright colour–“fluorescent, iridescent paints,” like a neon pink Bishop loves so much he has to stop himself from painting almost everything that shade–shows that these images, with their oversized trees and skies, aren’t about capturing a certain strip of roadway. Alongside that de Kooning-esque textured paint application, it’s clear that Bishop is mining remembered emotions to build his artistic universe. “It's kind of like this record of like, our relationship together over the years,” he says, adding that every painting title is cribbed from a song title–and that these references to Modest Mouse, Joy Division and Arcade Fire will hopefully help viewers find their way into his works.
“All the drives, back and forth between here and Quispamsis, I used to joke with my wife that I know every stretch of ditch between here and Halifax,” Bishops adds with a laugh, explaining that all the driving he’s done over the years, from his home in HRM to the New Brunswick town where he grew up, was a launching point for Road Trip Playlist. Turns out he knows the map of your imagination, of your memories, just as well.