THROUGH THE MAGNIFYING GLASS
A Conversation with JASON D’AQUINO
By Lori Zimmer
If bigger is better, Jason D’Aquino begs to differ. When the rest of the art world is making wall-sized pieces to impress, Jason’s confidence in his craft only requires one square inch. Using a painstaking process that involves an array of vintage papers and wearable magnifying glasses, he creates miniature masterpieces of retro pop culture icons.
After being friendly for a few years, I bonded with the artist while plunging head-on into one of my greatest fears–the ocean. Several drinks turned into a 4 A.M. dip during December’s Art Basel Miami, to my terror. Feeling like a nerd being pressured by the cool kids to smoke weed, my panicky apprehension was at least somewhat disguised from the rest of the group when Jason realized how scared shitless I was and took me under his wing. Art Basel this year was a good week for him; to the chagrin of stuffy collectors, he spent the week drinking and playing cards at his gallery’s booth in Scope Art Fair while fairgoers wandered the aisles. This stunt worked, as he soon sold out of all his pieces.
At home, the self proclaimed pack rat spends his days tattooing at his shop, Leviathan Tattoo, or combing the thrift stores and estate sales of Buffalo. I accompanied him one afternoon and we hit four in just under two hours. Although we came back fruitless, I saw his mind at work; he is on a constant quest for inspiration, scouring cast off and vintage materials to transform into his next work of art.
Jason works exclusively on found vintage materials; old ledges, vintage posters, delightfully yellowed stationary, partially used matchbooks with out of date phone numbers, fragile parchments, and out of date science diagrams and charts. He fuses his drawings with the origins of his materials, creating one new, unified piece that creates narratives between the viewer, the drawing, and the history of the piece of paper. This creates a relationship between the viewer and the work that most artists covet, conjuring historical stories, nostalgia, and our own relationship with both everyday objects and ephemera.
While I find a lot of work in the so called “Low Brow” scene to be kitschy and otherwise vapid, Jason’s fascination with history is evident and comes through in his work. He carefully layers miniature historical pop culture lessons in his miniature works, whether the viewer wants to be schooled or not. The world of Jason D’Aquino is a fascinating one. The more I know, the more I want to know more.
Lori Zimmer: You are a fine artist and also a tattooist–do you consider these as intertwining careers, or two separate facets of your life?
Jason D’aquino: They are separate, but not entirely separate. Sorry for the cop-out answer, but I will elaborate…
The two overlap when a kick-ass client wants one of my original drawings tattooed on them permanently. That is a pretty rewarding feeling. And the two feel distinctly separate at times–like when I have to handle drunk-ass douche-bag customers, who are run-off overflow from the bar next door. The nice part about tattooing is that it really keeps me in practice, even when I’m not working on anything for the galleries (which is never).
LZ: How did you get involved in the so-called “Low Brow” art scene? Do you think it is a movement that will appear in art history books of the future? Or a trend synonymous with kitsch culture?
JD: I think I became involved with the Low Brow scene through exposure to “Art Alternative” magazine quite a few years back. I liked the style of some of the work I saw in there, notably , Todd Schorr and Robert Williams. I never aspired to make my work look like theirs, but I did take notice of some of the galleries that were into showing the more edgy off-beat stuff. These were the spots I approached when looking for my first professional exhibition. I think Low Brow will definitely make it’s mark on Art History, whether it will be called “Low Brow” or whatever silly nonsensical moniker the historians retro-fit it with. There’s too much talent under that banner for the whole scene to be ignored.
LZ: Rumor has it you used to drive a hearse around town. Are you a secret goth?
JD: I am no goth. What I am is a horror enthusiast. I loved that car; she was a 1972 Cadillac. The only reason I sold her is because it would cost about $130 to fill the tank at today’s gas prices–not too practical. I think I want to buy another one though.
LZ: Where do you get all the vintage papers you draw on? Is there a dream “canvas” you have yet to use?
JD: I scour old buildings and flea markets, second-hand stores, and garage sales looking for any old paper, antique books, matchbooks or ephemera that I might be able to re-purpose as canvases for my drawings. I have a pretty significant stash of old paper. The concept of the “dream canvas” is a tricky one for me, kind of a double edged sword. I have a huge collection of antique blank books and unused ledgers. I love the gilding and the craftsmanship of the books themselves as objects, and I really would love to work in them, but in my mind, they are so perfect and unspoiled, that I can never bring myself to make a single mark in them. Instead, I just keep collecting these antique blank books. Whenever I find one, I buy it , and add it to the shelves. So in response to your question, the more I love the surface as an object, the less likely I am to make my mark on it. I like things that are imperfect–that is what makes them beautiful, relatable, just like with people. If someone is perfect, flawless, I find that as boring and bland as dry toast.
LZ: Do your materials define your work, or the other way around?
JD: Wow, I like that question. Individually, these objects are each given a new life when I select them as a canvas. Most of them, after all, were on their way to the trash pile. Now they have been resurrected, and shown in a completely different light. But what would my work be like, if I wasn’t using these found surfaces? The materials are an integral part of what I make. I can’t even bear to think about giving up using old surfaces. Working on new paper is so sterile and cold and aging artificially is a lie. I wouldn’t be me anymore, so I guess it’s safe to say that the materials define my work (partially).
LZ: How did you start drawing on vintage matchbooks?
JD: I was searching for the perfect found canvas for a miniature drawing… Most people will encounter my work for the first time, through a magazine article, or an online blog or website–as opposed to seeing the work in person. This can be tricky for a miniaturist, because it is often difficult when viewing an image on a computer screen, to determine scale. The matchbooks are universally recognizable objects, and they carry with them a built-in visual scale reference. When you see the matchsticks, you almost intuitively know, that the drawing is approximately 1 inch X 2 inches in size.
LZ: When did you decide you wanted to be a miniaturist?
JD: Right around 2000, I believe. I was living with a good friend and fellow artist in Kingston, New York. At the time, he was cutting seats for diamonds in high-end platinum jewelry–real fine work. Anyways, he would wear these high magnification goggles when he was working, and one day he brought them home. I tried them on, and thought of it as a personal challenge to see how small I could work, and still have the image hold up to scrutiny when blown up poster size. I have been using them ever since.
LZ: Are you ever concerned with what your art is doing to your eyes?
JD: I do my best not to think about that, thank you very much. The glasses definitely give me headaches; I can’t work for a prolonged period of time. I have to take lots of breaks. And my posture–between tattooing at the shop during the day, and hunching over miniatures in my studio at night–is pretty much crippling me. But it’s all good!
LZ: What can we expect from your upcoming solo show at La Luz?
JD: You can expect lots and lots of new matchbooks, a bunch of weirdo labor-intensive drawings on dirty old garbage. I’m busting my butt to make some really densely detailed stuff. I just showed a dozen or so new pieces at Miami Scope last month. Sold them all, and now it is quite literally-back to the drawing board. This will be my second solo show with Billy, and I think it is going to kick some serious ass.
Jason D’Aquino is a Buffalo based miniaturist, tattooist, and horror enthusiast. He is an expert in men’s 1940s and 1950s fashion, and has a Boston terrier named Max who apparently has bad breath.
Written by Lori Zimmer
Edited by Meaghan Coffey
Photography Courtesy of Jason D’Aquino
Design by Marie Havens
Photography Courtesy of Jason D’Aquino