Stuck indoors due to COVID-19 restrictions, Jack Bishop went “a little nuts” and started painting the open road with huge skies in electric pinks, yellows and greens.  

Is it sunset or sunrise? It doesn’t matter, says Bishop, because this series is not about time or place. Just as Alex Colville drew on details of his daily life to explore ideas, Bishop uses his personal life as a jumping off-point.   

Each painting contains a car, a Hyundai Elantra. At the wheel is a line-drawn Bishop wearing his trademark ball cap. In the passenger seat is his wife Jamie and between them is Ted, a nine-year-old, huskie/shepherd mix who looks similar to that most emblematic Canadian of animals, a wolf. 

The little car travels on a ribbon of road in a vast, sublime landscape. It is a journey into a magical world that is like a psychedelic fantasy, or the surprise of a shatteringly gorgeous dawn, or the wonder of the cosmos in star-spattered heavens. Bishop describes the paintings as a “psychological self-portrait though colour palettes and colour theory. I feel the colour is my self-portrait.”

Queen of the Highway, oil and acrylic, 48 x 60 inches, 2021, Jack Bishop. Photo courtesy of Studio 21 Fine Art.

The Halifax artist, from Saint John, N.B., works in florescent, iridescent, and phosphorescent paint held in tension with darker tones. He paints in visible brushstrokes in oil and acrylic to contrast flat surfaces with thick, tacky paint. Rain comes down in thick slats of green; the sun erupts over a red forest; cobalt leaves dance on bare branches.

With Arts Nova Scotia funding, he veered away from previous paintings of cars at strip malls and fast food joints that explored branding and consumerism. Married in late 2019, he wanted to pay homage to his relationship. “The business parks and drive-throughs didn’t seem to be as honest a subject matter as expressing my personal life.” Also, in late 2019, he painted an image similar to Alex Colville’s Dog in Car, 1999, in which Colville’s wife Rhoda is at the wheel with their dog in the back seat.  “I loved it so much I decided to pursue it in a series.”

In the past he used photographs. “I started working from memory and thinking of the paint itself. I was trying to think of synthetic colours outside of nature. It’s almost like painting light itself rather than a realism.”

The earlier 2020 pieces focus on one dominant, blazing colour. The later, wilder, more-abstracted, multi-coloured works are inspired by watching light hit a lamp’s glass base at his home. “It acts like a prism and shoots these rainbows onto the walls.”

Bishop paints rainbows of light emanating from the high beams of his car.  The car is lifted up and held within rainbows. In a large work the rising sun is a white orb, encircled in yellow as if it were a reverse fried egg. It shoots out horizontal, vertically-striped beams of green, blue, purple and red. 

These paintings straddling the Group of Seven and contemporary abstraction are romantic. “Painting is romantic I think,” says Bishop.

Bishop was also inspired by indie Canadian and classic rock music to name his paintings with song titles or lyrics, often related to the road “to provide more atmosphere” and to deepen a viewer’s identity with the work. The title, There’s a voice that keeps on calling me, down the road is where I’ll always be, is from The Littlest Hobo’s theme song. “We’ve always called Ted the Littlest Hobo.”

The 22 paintings in Road Trip Playlist, at Halifax’s Studio 21 to April 7, are a deep dive into the materiality of paint and the joy of texture, the power of colour and the pursuit of light.

Let’s go for a drive and see the town tonight, there’s nothing to do but I don’t mind when I’m with you, 48 x 60 inches, 2021, Jack Bishop. Photo courtesy of Studio 21 Fine Art.