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An Interview with Isaac Layman: A Seattle Artist Finding Paradise in His Own Home

Isaac Layman. Untitled, 2011. Photographic construction, ink-jet on paper. 95" X 59".

Isaac Layman has taken the art world by storm with his evocative, large-scale photographic constructions, which transform the banal into the hyper-realistic, haunting and enigmatic. Drinking glasses, used tissues, heating vents: Any object in Layman’s Seattle home can become the object of an intense visual meditation, captured over and over from subtly different angles by the artist’s high-resolution, large-scale digital 4 X 5 camera.

When I ask Layman, then, what medium he would choose to work in if he were not doing digital photography, he muses, “Interesting. I actually don’t think of myself as working in any particular medium—simply using whatever tools are necessary to complete the work. If I wasn’t working in art, I think I would gravitate towards philosophy.”

Perhaps therein lies the secret to Isaac Layman’s meteoric rise; he’s an artist who entices you into fresh new ways of perceiving the world. Born in 1977, Layman held his first show at Bayview Gallery in Langley at the age of 19. He went on to earn his BFA from the University of Washington in 2003. Five years later, he received Seattle Art Museum’s prestigious Betty Bowen Award.

Now one of Seattle’s most esteemed artists, Layman has also won national acclaim. In 2012, he’ll be exhibiting in Los Angeles, New York and Miami and contributing to “Lifelike,” a group show at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center.

Closer to home, you can view his impressive solo exhibition, “Isaac Layman: Paradise,” at the Frye Art Museum, which will run through Jan. 22. Curated by the museum’s director, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, the show features 20 new works by Layman. Don’t think of it as a collection of discrete pieces, though: Layman and Danzker together spent two days planning how to hang the images for the show, and the very framing of the museum space is as much a part of the exhibition as the contents of the frames.

Don’t be alarmed if you can’t find any titles on the photographs. Layman acknowledges, “I understand it can be uncomfortable to leave something untitled.” Yet, he emphasizes, “Titling is another element of framing.” Aside from the exhibition’s over-arching title, “Paradise,” which points to the way we build perfect paradises out of our imagined perceptions, the only piece bearing a title is “Land Grab,” whose identity is its title. “I guess another way to put that is that particular work wasn’t finished until it was titled,” Layman explains.

Not every piece of Layman’s work is photographic in nature. He’s taken three living room windows and a dining room window out of his own home and framed them. They appear to be empty frames at first glance, but as you settle your gaze on these objects that you usually look through, not at, you notice traces of life in fingerprints, smudges and bug marks. Layman challenges you to refocus your eyes and exert your own agency in addressing his works. The window panes tell as much of a story as the oddly beautiful image of crumpled, used tissues (mementos of last flu season, courtesy of Layman’s family).

Isaac Layman’s family is implicitly present in all his work, because he creates his pieces in their shared sphere. His wife and children participate in his paradise, but not without sacrifices on their part. Layman says, “I think my family has gotten used to the recurring inconvenience of me making art at home—commandeering the kitchen for a month at a time, etc. As for removing windows from the house, my wife, Camilla, was adamant that new windows needed to go in and that we wouldn’t live with plywood.”

For more information on “Isaac Layman: Paradise,” visit To learn more about the artist, check out