Purgatory on the C-Train

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“No Name” by Jason Mark. Digital composite

I first met Jason Mark when he came to live in my apartment. Actually, I should be more precise—I met him when he came to sublet my apartment. I was living in a cheap studio on Park Avenue near Fairmount, pleasantly appointed but also quite small and dark. When the opportunity arose to move up the street into a bright two-bedroom place with my girlfriend, I put out a call for subletters. Jason answered and, not long thereafter, he settled in with a few boxes of stuff and some leftover furniture I have yet to reclaim from him.

Jason is an artist, born and raised in Saskatchewan, where he received a degree in fine arts from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. When he moved into my old apartment, he set up an easle in the corner of the kitchen and hung some of his paintings on the walls. It wasn’t until last week that I took a closer look at his art, though, and I was surprised to find a lot of public transit imagery and themes of cultural confusion and hybridity.

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“Purgatory.” Oil on canvas

One of Jason’s earlier paintings is “Purgatory,” a panoramic view of passengers on Calgary’s C-Train. Other than capturing urban isolation—“like Edward Hopper,” he tells me—Jason’s goal was to transform the train into a metaphor for an “in-between place.” People get on, share several moments of proximity and interconectedness, and then they get off. The train completes its journey as usual and as scheduled. The world of public transit is at once ephemeral and well-grounded.

Jason delves more deeply into that concept in some of his other work. In “No Name,” a young girl stands on the C-Train, holding the edge of one of the seats. Sepia-toned, clutching a book and dressed in a traditional Chinese cheong sam, she looks out of place, a ghostly visitor from another era. Chinese script is superimposed over the image. “This was my grandmother,” says Jason. “I never knew her. She died in childbirth in China when my father was young. She and my grandfather, in the background, are superimposed onto the transit. They are there, but not at the same time.” He goes on to explain that the layers of images and text refers to “covering up and removing, as well as building and growing,” and that the Chinese script is meant to create confusion and a visual obstacle.

“No Name” suggests a past—a family heritage—that is constantly in flux, visible but out of reach. It serves as a good introduction to some of Jason’s most recent work, which includes “Mixed Up,” a series of twelve portraits depicting people of mixed Asian and European descent. Jason himself is half-Chinese, half-European, and “Mixed Up” is his way of exploring his hybrid identity. I ask Jason whether he has heard of Kip Fulbeck, whose well-publicized Hapa Project explores mixed-race Asian identity. “I never heard of him before,” replies Jason. “Strange. I guess it proves there isn’t original thinking anymore.”

I wouldn’t be so harsh: all it proves is that mixed identities, and especially mixed Asian identities, have become fertile creative ground. “I was one of maybe three or four kids in my whole school that were of mixed race or ethnicity,” wrote Jason in his introduction to “Mixed Up” when it was exhibited last year.

Every other kid looked ‘white.’ As a kid, I stood out when that was the last thing that I wanted.

As I grew older, I lost a lot of my Chinese features. Today, most people regard me as white, or something that they can’t quite place. People are even surprised that there is Chinese blood in my veins. This sometimes puzzles me because I have seen myself as that Chinese kid for so long.

My grandfather gave me the Chinese name Ka-Wah when I was born. The two characters translate as ‘Canada’ and ‘China.’ I thought it was incredibly unimaginative considering my sister and cousins had names that described beauty and strength. I never really thought about it until recently, but my name really seems to define myself and everyone represented here in this mixed-up series of paintings.

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“Jason” and “Christine.” Oil on canvas

Jason’s oeuvre channels his own background into something unusual and interesting. As a metaphor for identity, few forms of travel are as rich in possibility as public transit. Here is a journey whose origin, destination and stops are well-known, but whose cast of characters is constantly changing. You can reach the places—but not the people.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday January 28 2007at 12:01 am , filed under Art and Design, Canada, Society and Culture, Transportation and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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