Whitehot Magazine

February 2012: Jsun Laliberte' & Jason Caplan The Orchard Windows Gallery


Jsun Laliberté & Jason Caplan
@ The Orchard Windows Gallery

The mark’s men: An exploratory look into the lives of two painters and their mark-making approach to the 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 two marks-men introduced here altered the indifference I felt towards mark-making and clarified significantly that it is indeed no silly child's play.

Two of the hardest working painters I know, astute mark- makers to the max, are Jsun Laliberté and Jason Caplan. Although complete opposites in their physiognomy, mannerisms and temperament, their upbringing and background run parallel to their creative processes and energies. Where Jsun Laliberte stands 6'5" with a long and slim physique, Jason Caplan is closer to 5'6" and more robust, stocky. Laliberté is a wine sommelier who's worked at New York's finest dining establishments whereas Mr. Caplan prefers to imbibe $2.00 PBR's at Hogs and Heifers. Yet both hail from families with parents in the medical fields, have blood relatives who've spent lifetimes making art, both are art school graduates and both created in different mediums earlier in their careers.  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, where his aging father is the renowned and pioneering organic farmer Basil Caplan, and cousin of playwright Peter Schaffer.

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, and in his case, framing them in squares. Each rectangular canvas is divided by an almost invisible row of horizontal and vertical lines. They result in an eye-measured grid of imperfect square blocks. No rulers used here. No geometric formulas applied. Only the trust of his eyes and the deft of his painting hand lay these quasi blocks out, skills learned, no doubt, 'bombing' subway cars in a hurry late at night up in the Bronx. Each uneven square can almost be mistaken for a block-type font, 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 insure 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.

Mr. Laliberté, a third generation Quebecois potter whose name rings 'freedom' true takes an approach to painting that's purely autodidactic; helped along the way working alongside his mother in her stained glass studio and throwing clay with an uncle and grandfather, both full time ceramists. While family histories were beholden to dogma of utilitarian craft and laying a groundwork to begin life as artist, Laliberté sees art and life differently. And like his fellow French Canadian Kerouac, Laliberté, too, is a man of the road, for the road. Traversing across continents on his BMW F650cs, the infamous Valencia, made for the 'iron ass' set (those seeking extremely long journeys via motor bike), Laliberté is perfectly poised to discover subjects and dissect lessons and apply them in paint. Taking his expertise in Biodynamic viticulture, a codified form of holistic agriculture for wine growing, learned first hand on a biking journey to Napa Valley, Mr. Laliberté creates multi layered 'fantasy environments' where dualities in compression and expansion of geometric and organic forms collide; these paintings are incubators of study, of observations to what's going on in the world of agriculture. One painting called "Seed As Ultimate Chaos" looks like a blueprint to war between Monsanto, the evil geometric matrix say and Joe the 'organic' farmer in Vermont-- or the little guy across the border in Mexico who refuses to use genetically modified corn spun out by Monsanto. His travels and friendships with multiple leading practitioners of biodynamic, good-for-the-earth farming, has made Mr. Laliberté a sort of 'Freedom Fighter' for this century's global fight for self-preservation, but instead of spearing pitchforks into the eyes of Earth's oppressors Laliberté takes to the gallery his mantra on sustainability. His pragmatic intelligence resonates sensitively to the energy transference between the lunar, solar, planetary and celestial movements which dictate weather and climate. Natural observation and established theories guide composition as executed in "Seed As Ultimate Chaos".  His creative practice seeks to unravel and explain the contextual, aesthetic and formal challenges of interpretation to those things his passions and interests (and his motor bike, Valencia) take him to.

Final Note: Artists, like ants, come out daily from their art-studio-hole, to collectively gather around certain hotbeds of creative sustenance. Whether it's a bar like the Cedar Tavern for the Abstract Expressionists or Orchard Street on gallery night, you'll find colonies of artists hurrying in and out of shows looking for nourishment, looking for something, a friend, a new lover, a model, cool new paintings to devour or sculptures to take in. Some will linger in one spot all night in a state of loyal intoxication for the artist on display, others will move so fast between galleries one has to wonder did they even notice the art - or was it they just wanted to be noticed? Some bring their own drink of six packs dangling in plastic bags, others keep Kush packed in glass pipes stored in side pockets, while still others simply want to know where the free stuff is at. On really cold nights the lucky ones can jump in a taxi to shoot over to Chelsea from the Lower East Side and see those shows, too, as opposed, say, to walking up 6th avenue with a large posse of artist-friends on a warm mild night, hearing about everyone’s latest, arguing, laughing, cheering and not even giving a shit if 18th street from Houston to the next gallery, to the next show, is reached because it's the here and now, the immediate moment of the journey, that matters most, the feeding-off each other.

It’s this type of synergy that brought Jsun Laliberté to New York in 2006 from Florida, where he was cross-hybridizing orchids to fulfill nothing more than aesthetic gratification.  Yet because of who he is, his working methods, it also fueled an entire body of paintings over a four year time period. I recall meeting him, in fact, on Houston Street in SOHO selling these phantasmagorical hybrid-flower paintings inside this little portable greenhouse he would erect each day, protecting himself from the harshness of a NYC Winter. It was also pure marketing genius, adding to the vibrancy of this city's ever changing art-world landscape. Mr. Laliberte enjoys his new home in the Big Apple and has settled in comfortably well. But the city could also drive one mad. The non-stop, cut-throat, hustle and bustle coupled with high costs, the distractions of so many bars, shows and art friends makes many an artist desire to escape. Upstate went Ellsworth Kelly and to Long Island de Kooning and Pollack sailed. For Mr. Caplan, a home inherited on the other side of the pond, in 2006 (oddly), has had an enormous benefit to his output, working diligently every day without distraction, stopping only to roll cigarettes, finishing up like a machine on the clock at precisely 5pm. But wherever one settles and finds the necessary stimuli or solace to work, it is the work that matters most. And it is my wish with the work created by these two marks-men, on display at the Dino Eli owned Orchard Windows gallery on the Lower East Side, that they'll leave their mark, lastingly, on you, whoever you are and wherever you're from! See you around town. GdlH

Gregory de la Haba

Gregory de la Haba is an artist and writer from New York City.

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