Other than his perpetually paint-stained clothes, Binghamton, N.Y., native Sam Jablon cut a deceptively ordinary figure during his four years (2005-09) at Naropa University, where he graduated with an interdisciplinary degree in writing, meditation and visual art. A quiet and friendly long-haired young man with obvious talent and a penchant for keeping mostly subdued — but focused — in class, Jablon candidly expressed himself in art, poetry and conversation. On and off campus, he subtly connected with established artists and writers who gave him wisdom and opportunities. Now, living and working in Brooklyn, the 24-year-old Jablon is using a lot of what he learned in Boulder to keep moving forward in his life and career as an artist.
“Brooklyn is a whole different world,” Jablon said in a phone conversation from Binghamton just after Christmas. “When I started out at Naropa it was really warm and welcoming and it was easy to set up a life and make friends and meet people. Brooklyn is hard and cold and there’s 100,000 people trying to do the exact same thing that you’re doing. It’s really competitive. It’s expensive. It’s also amazing, though.”
Face It, Jablon’s latest exhibition of works on wood and paper, features vibrantly colored oil and oil pastel paintings produced in the past year. As in many of his Boulder-era paintings, undecipherable or covered-up poems and darkly cartoonish heads — either sans faces or with seemingly vacuous features — consistently appear throughout Face It, which will line the walls of Naropa’s Nalanda campus from Friday until March 1. The vacant heads often seem simply amusing at first glance, but the exhibition is really about looking at life through a fearless lens, according to Jablon.
“In my current work, sometimes faces are kind of obscured and lost in all the colors, but they’re always part of the painting,” the artist explains. “[Face It] is about facing reality, facing whatever’s in front of you. If there’s a theme to the show, that’s it: going right into whatever’s in front of you and not shying away or backing away because of fear or because you don’t want to look at it.”
Moving from Boulder to Brooklyn was a jarring experience for Jablon, although invitations to study and create art have already taken him from Vermont to Berlin to Greece and — in a few months — China.
“New York’s hard, but I love it,” he says, “It’s the complete opposite of Boulder and Naropa, and witnessing a more urban life has definitely changed my work. Plus there’s so many different kinds of artists and so many different kinds of art that, for me, it’s really opened my mind to the possibilities of what you can do. I find it really inspiring, and it’s a great place to be in your 20s.”
After meeting several prestigious East Coast artists and poets, such as the eccentric spoken-word artist Bob Holman, through Naropa’s Summer Writing Program, Jablon was able to instantly connect with the New York scene when he arrived. He’s been working with Holman and others in Manhattan and helping design sets for the TV show Hell’s Kitchen, and recently he even curated a Bowery Poetry Club exhibition for emerging artists.
Jablon says getting involved is much easier than most young people think.
“I’m finding that people are really friendly. If you want to talk to some famous artist and you just see them out — because they’re all over the place — and you just go up and talk to them, they’ll probably give you a minute or two. And I find that if you’re willing to step up to the plate and play, even if you fail, New York will play with you.”
In Boulder, Jablon worked as an assistant to the Argentinean artist Ana Maria Hernando, who he says taught him “how to function as an artist,” and he’s excited about seeing her this week. The exhilarating ranges of orange and pink in Colorado’s dynamic sunsets are also still a huge influence on Jablon’s paintings, which often juxtapose the whimsy of Picasso and a more psychedelic, drip-heavy version of Mark Rothko’s bold lines. But perhaps the most consistent influence on Jablon’s work has been Jean-Michel Basquiat. The late New York neo-expressionist painter’s marriage of unruly graffiti, high art and urban symbology has served as an inspiration for Jablon’s work since the young artist heard of Basquiat as a teenager.
“He’s someone I’ve always understood,” Jablon says. “I’ve always understood what the work is about and it’s always spoken to me. Every time I look at his work I find something new. So I feel we share a lot of similarities, but his work’s much more angry than mine. There’s a violence to it that I don’t feel like my work has. There was a complexity to his work that I would like to be able to use without copying Basquiat. I don’t want to just be a copy of Basquiat, but he’s one of the first artists I looked at and really went, ‘Wow.’” Jablon’s most recent works, including the giant 72-inch-by-48-inch “Who Knows 2moro,” reveal his respect for Basquiat by merging wild streaks of color and intense faces with brutal depictions of city life. For “Who Knows 2moro,” Jablon even incorporated found objects — such as a bottle cap found on the street during a nasty brawl in his neighborhood, a subway ticket and pieces of exhibition flyers — into the painting.
Not surprisingly, however, Susan Jablon — a renowned Binghamton-based mosaic artist — continues to be her son’s biggest inspiration. Sam and his mother (who first taught him how to paint at age 2) often collaborate on public art projects and mosaics for Hell’s Kitchen as well as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. But it’s the younger Jablon’s art intense childhood that resonates so strongly to this day.
“My mom’s awesome,” he says. “She showed me that art is fun, and that’s still where I go when I’m painting. I grew up in this massive studio just throwing paint at the walls, and that really shaped how I still see painting. I have a much better control of color now, what colors I want and how I want them to fall, but the influence I have from being a young child painting, I think I’m still going for the same thing.”
On the Bill
Sam Jablon’s exhibition, Face It, will be on display at Naropa University’s Nalanda campus until Tuesday, March 1. 6287 Arapahoe Ave., 303-444-0202.