By VITTORIA BENZINE March, 2021
New York-based Jason Naylor secured the commercial artist’s holy grail in May 2019, when French makeup monolith Sephora celebrated its new Times Square flagship. After fifteen years, the graphic designer, artist, and creative director could ultimately count a permanent billboard at the western world’s epicenter amongst his accolades, created to commemorate the retail destination. While Naylor’s style and mission have remained consistent since, he’s forever exploring new avenues for expression. The artist’s first solo show, ‘Reading Between The Lines,’ recently concluded its run at 150 Grand Street in Brooklyn, marking a new chapter in his adventure.
Naylor’s confectionary color palette and proselytized positivity have garnered considerable acclaim—BUMBLE even named him “One of the 100 Most Inspiring New Yorkers.” The artist’s vibrant streaks of radical joy have animated advertisements for Fenty, Fanta, and Jo Malone alike. He also paints murals prolifically, draping prominent corners in kaleidoscope chromatics, always with a clear message.
As Naylor and I convened over FaceTime to discuss ‘Reading Between The Lines,’ it struck me that he speaks with the self-assurance of someone who’s survived themselves. Naylor grew up in Salt Lake City and attended Brigham Young University for its in-state tuition and graphic design program. There, he began an exodus from the Mormon faith he’d been born into. “It was socially and culturally complicated for me, but it was a great school,” Naylor said.
The artist’s professional career took off shortly after graduation. He moved to New York City to begin work in the creative department at MAC Cosmetics, a brand which subtly shaped his aesthetic. “I was required to work with a lot of colorful imagery, colorful beauty photography,” Naylor recalled. He harmonized these new elements with temptations like typography which had drawn him to design in the first place.
“I'm fascinated with this idea of communication,” Naylor explained. As a designer, he relishes layering new complexities onto the words we comprehend without effort, introducing deeper meanings according to color and shape and shadow.
Even after breaking out for a more vivid future in the big city, Naylor continued battling his demons. The artist got sober in 2015, after a decade on his own, finally surmounting the substance abuse that had started as rebellion before acquiring a life of its own. Naylor contemplated how earlier sketchbooks from this era reflect the lifestyle changes that followed his decision to get clean. “My work was kind of dark,” Naylor recalled. “It had that tortured artist quality and this tormented, misunderstood look to it.”
“The more that I've learned who I am, the more that I’ve found myself, the more it shows in my work and the more people like my work,” he continued. Now that he’s embraced his inner brightness, Naylor is harnessing that wattage to create upward spirals of dazzling alacrity. “Positivity is a result of optimism combined with hard work and gratitude,” he stated.
Naylor’s work is pretty, but this doesn’t preclude him from grit or the same principles underpinning radical archetypes. If punk rock is truly the practice of everything anti-establishment, then fostering optimism in a culture of cynics is revolutionary. “I grew up in a place and a family and a culture that says wearing black is what bad people do, getting tattoos is what bad people do,” Naylor told me. “I have this fantasy of exemplifying happiness with this rock and roll attitude.”
As such, ’Reading Between The Lines’ takes swings at the artist’s comfort zone. While Naylor’s latest series flashed throughout the white-walled pop-up space selected and curated by Beckie Warren of with mediums familiar to his practice, the curator helped push Naylor to deconstruct his literal messaging, untangling its components into to something more undone and unassuming.
This divergence marks a profound code switch in Naylor’s relationship to his own work, which often prioritizes efficiency. Pedestrians and passengers are in motion—they need to get the message quickly. “Inside the gallery,” he contrasted, “I wanted the experience feel a little bit less literal and a little bit quieter.”
Creating this space for interpretation provides viewers with new intimacy, a piece of the final product to claim for their own. After years of providing direct communication, Naylor faced the uncertain space between sending and receiving. “Maybe they meet me in the middle and there's some sort of understanding,” he mused. “I can only say so much, or I can only design so much. The rest of it has to happen intuitively through the emotions that happen when you see the colors or when you see the painting.”
Transitioning from a clear-cut commercial career into the fine art world requires further vulnerability and comfort with uncertainty. “I'm used to having feedback,” the artist told me. “When you have a commercial job, you know when it's successful because it's approved.”
“Even with street art, you have a gauge for success,” he continued. “If I put a mural up on the street, I can tell whether people like it by how many people are reposting it.” Meanwhile, in a gallery setting, sales serve the concrete moniker for success. By this metric, ‘Reading Between The Lines’ is a smash hit. However, Naylor understands that abundance doesn’t always translate to quality. “The metric for success has to be that I completed the work, that I'm happy with the work for myself,” he said.
Perhaps this is why Naylor’s positivity packs such a punch, whether presented literally or otherwise. “People are so quick,” the artist emphasized. “They're smarter, more intuitive than they get credit for. When they walk into my show, they see colorful, positive work. They don't necessarily just see my paintings, but they see me, they see my heart, they see my soul.”
That soul’s unabashed affinity for joy isn’t an accident. It’s a decision that Naylor wakes up and makes every day—a value system bolder than the packaging on a brand new MAC lipstick, a history nuanced like the artist’s latest solo show, and a journey that fails to tire after scaling even the highest peak. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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