An 'alternative' Canadian art history: Looking back at the best of @nationalgalleryofcanada

After some accidental controversy and an Instagram shutdown, Toronto painter Jay Isaac's art project — now complete — is back online.

After some accidental controversy, the now-complete Instagram project is back online

"Wow. I've never seen this before." Comments like that are what Jay Isaac's @nationalgalleryofcanada Instagram was all about. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)

Last September, Toronto painter Jay Isaac launched an art project on Instagram. Earlier this month, the social network shut it down, and he couldn't have asked for a better ending.

Isaac, 41, had been using Instagram to curate an "alternative" version of Canadian art history.

If you followed his feed, you might see a painting by Alex Colville, or traditional wall-hangings by First Nations textile artists, or photos of laneway graffiti. There's nothing weird about an arty Instagrammer curating a wide-ranging mix of material — but he named his account @nationalgalleryofcanada, and shortly after the IRL National Gallery in Ottawa alerted the social network about the handle, the account was shut down without warning.

The National Gallery is not my adversary. [...] We have the same goal, which is to promote Canadian art.- Jay Isaac, artist

That all happened earlier this month. As the National Gallery tells CBC Arts, they didn't put a hit on the account. Per their spokesperson, they only sent an "inquiry to Instagram regarding its intellectual property regulations." And after one week (and a few international media mentions, including a story by the BBC) @nationalgalleryofcanada was reactivated.

"The account was removed in error," an Instagram rep told us in a statement — but now that it's back online, Isaac's decided to shut it down, anyway.

As he wrote in his final post last week: "It served its purpose."

Jay Isaac signed off from his popular Instagram project @nationalgalleryofcanada the week of Dec. 12, 2016. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)

During its run, @nationalgalleryofcanada "was mostly an educational resource," Isaac tells us, and he figures his followers (which numbered around 7,000 before the account's temporary disappearance) were a mix of Canadians who were just interested in "obscure art that they might not know about" and people who "didn't even know who Tom Thomson was, let alone all the other artists" on the feed.

That's why he says he's happy to see the account back online. It'll live on as an archive as sorts — for the foreseeable future, at any rate.

While it was active, @nationalgalleryofcanada also functioned as an art project. It was a way to reflect on just how broad the Canadian art scene actually is, while gently critiquing the big institutions that have always dictated what matters. And it wasn't about singling out just one museum — say, the one being referenced in the Insta's jokey title.

"The National Gallery is not my adversary. I want the National Gallery to exist. They serve an amazing purpose within our society," Isaac says. "We have the same goal, which is to promote Canadian art."

"Canada's a diverse place with a diverse history, and I wanted @nationalgalleryofcanada to reflect that."- Jay Isaac, artist

"I've been an artist in Toronto, in Canada, for 20 years now," says Isaac, whose own work happens to be included in several galleries' public collections (the Winnipeg Art Gallery, for instance, and Calgary's Glenbow Museum).

"I understand pretty clearly that a stronger community makes things better for me as an artist," he says. The project was a small way of supporting that community. Isaac regularly featured working artists on the feed, for instance, sharing photos taken at smaller gallery shows happening around the country — Toronto sculptor Tau Lewis, for example, Calgary-born artist Zin Taylor, Montreal's Valérie Blass.

In terms of curation, Isaac says his M.O. was largely about "discovery."

"I've been a student of painting my whole life," he says. "So I kind of knew a lot, but I didn't realize how much there is to learn." In some rare instances, followers introduced him to artists he'd never encountered (Ladislav Guderna, for example, a Vancouver-based surrealist painter who died in 1999).

"Canada's a diverse place with a diverse history, and I wanted [@nationalgalleryofcanada] to reflect that," Isaac says, explaining that he made a point of seeking out artwork from cultures and points of view that are frequently excluded.

We asked Isaac to share a few of his favourite posts from the project, and you'll find those images below — a mini archive of the 721 entries that temporarily vanished from Instagram.

"With the end of the project, it kind of came full circle," he says. "For [an institution] to actively try to shut it down it kind of shows why the institutions need to be critiqued. It was sort of a self-fulfilling circle."

"It did what it was supposed to do. And I think all the attention made people realize, 'I can start something. I can mimic an institution in a way that is critical but also humorous, and start my own dialogue about what I think is important.'"

A few of @nationalgalleryofcanada's greatest hits...

Zoe Barcza. Part of the exhibition, Dr. Awkward, showing at Ghebaly Gallery in Los Angeles to Dec. 23. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)
Andre Ethier. Untitled (Jungle, Tiles), 2016. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)
Annie Pootoogook. Woman at her Mirror (Playboy Pose), 2003. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)
Arnold Belkin. Utopia, 1971. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)
Arnold Belkin. Minimal Presence. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)
Audrey Capel Doray. Hieroglyphic Man #1, 1965. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)
Allen Sapp. Driving the Load Home, 1972. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)
Carl Ray. Fisherman's Spirit, 1968. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)
Carl Ray. Title unknown. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)
Ladislav Guderna. Imaginary Landscape. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)
Marion Nicoll. Morley Reserve, 1963. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)
Marion Tuu'luq. Untitled wall hanging. (Instagram/@nationalgalleryofcanada)