An exploratory look into mark-making and a visual dialogue.
While an art student the term ‘mark-making’ seemed a bit silly, something signaling more child’s play than skill; art lingo perfectly suited for those who couldn’t paint like the Old Masters I most admired then, and cleverly used to explain the visually obvious: artists make marks! Especially those from the second half of the 20th century and in the Abstract Expressionists movement in particular from whence the term derived. De Kooning, one of the most famous mark-makers, wasn’t about turning form, line or chiaroscuro the way apprenticed artists learned by rote for 500 years prior. He was about destroying such things. Teachings that lead one nineteenth century artist named Degas to pronounce: “Don’t follow any of the rules, but don’t break them either”. Luckily for us de Kooning heeded not Degas’ advice and decided instead to break all the rules, obliterate them entirely. And it was through a continued obliteration of rules and traditional picture making practices that de Kooning arrived to his art, leaving an invaluable mark upon art history’s page. Herein lies the great mystery to all artists- as well as their great escape from pauper/struggler artist to immortal art god like de Kooning: What unique attributes, or marks, will the art muses reveal in their work? And more importantly will the marks they leave (or rules they break, reinvent even) get posterity’s stamp of approval? The former no guarantee of the latter. Great mark-makers like de Kooning (as illustrated magnificently in MoMA’s recent retrospective) and the marks-man introduced here altered the indifference I felt towards mark-making and clarified significantly that it is indeed no silly child’s play.
Amongst the hardest working painters I know, Jason Caplan is an astute mark- maker.
Mr. Caplan, born in London, raised in Chelsea, NYC, had his first foray into mark-making through vandalism vis-a-vis community activism in the protesting against NYU building a dormitory across the street from his aunt’s painting studio on East 10th Street. The aunt, the reclusive abstract expressionist and still going strong @ 88 yrs of age, Joanne Gedney, and who’s listed as a ‘member’ in Philip Pavia’s CLUB WITHOUT WALLS, (the seminal journal on the ‘men-only club’ of 1950’s abstract-expressionist painters), hung, drank, loved and argued with all of them at Cedar’s Tavern. She gave Jason a magic marker telling him to write some opposition message on the construction site’s walls. Jason took to graffiti like a Moroccan carpet peddler takes to a naive tourist in Tangier. He became notorious in the 80’s as a founding member of the AOK Crew under the nom de graffiti HASK, even getting work and that of his crew’s published in Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff’s pivotal 1987 book Spraycan Art. But Mr. Caplan’s foray in illegal, underground art longed to find voice above ground at the easel, trading-in spraycans for brushes after hearing one too many de Kooning stories from his earliest mentor, babysitter and close de Kooning friend Aristodimos Kaldis (b.1899-1979, instrumental lecturer, artist, activist) and from his aunt who on many occasions met-up with de Kooning, Aristodimos, Philip Pavin, Milton Resnick (lived in same building) and all the rest of ’em at their favorite watering hole on University Place. Mr. Caplan eventually went to the Museum School in Boston, graduated with honors from their fifth year Tufts-affiliated graduate program and returned to New York in earnest to begin life as painter, settling more recently in Taunton, England.
Mr. Caplan’s approach to picture making is very much like that of the Abstract Expressionists. He admires painting for painting’s sake, non-political, a-thematic, accommodating to mistakes. Mr Caplan relies primarily on the trust of his eyes and the deft of his painting hand; skills learned, no doubt, ‘bombing’ subway cars in a hurry late at night down in the New York subway system. Many of Mr Caplan’s works have marks referring to a letter, an entire row a word or a graffiti artist’s tag (a graffiti writer’s signature in marker or spray paint). ‘Wildstyle’ in graffiti terminology refers to a complicated construction of interlocking letters and in essence that is what we have in these paintings; a complicated juxtaposition of color coated mass broken down into shimmering fractions across the surface.
Furthermore, the base coat, the imprimatura, is never allowed to dry before the final ‘blocking-out’ is complete, when the final marks are brushed in and the wild-style mark-making rendered. According to Mr. Caplan this method of wet on wet is to ensure the colors “contaminate each other.” And with thick swatches of paint, laid down with wide fat brushes, the last remnants of graffiti turn hieroglyphic, make reading these marks a visual feast that shouldn’t pass one by like a fast moving, spotless, MTA train.