Interview by Ryan Sluggett
Images by Michael Mundy
“My work is a personal view
of my own experiences, much like how a family tree
would be structured. Much of it is an invitation
—Jason McLean to explore like a treasure hunt. ” — Jason McLean
A Canadian artist of diverse practices and mediums, Jason McLean is best known for his work in found objects and highly personal, complex and surreal drawings – a network of tangential messages and objects that function like a map of his life and society. He now lives and works in New York City. His current show “Soda Gardner” is at Wilding Cran in Los Angeles from January 19 – March 14.
Canadian painter and video artist represented by Richard Telles Fine Art in LA and TrépanierBaer in Calgary. Sluggett’s work has been included in the 2012 Hammer Biennial, “Made in LA” and permanent collections including The University of Chicago and the Hammer Museum. He held his second solo show, “Bubble Over Puddle” at the Richard Telles in 2014.
A form of drawing, developed by the Surrealists, which involves letting the subconscious take over by allowing the hand to move freely and randomly across the paper. The drawing lacks rationality and, in theory, reveals the inner workings of the psyche.
Brooklyn-born artist (1960-1988) who was part of the NY street art movement in the 70s with the graffiti group SAMO. In the 80s, he produced abstract paintings whose marriage of text and image was overtly political, criticizing power structures, racism and colonialism.
A French artist (1887-1968) associated with Dadaism and conceptual art, Duchamp is known for his ready-mades (commonly known as found art), most famously “Fountain,” (1917) a urinal signed R. Mutt. He wanted to put art back in the realm of the mind over the eye.
The experience of Jason McLean’s work is like following a train of thought back to its root. Where did it start? Where did it branch off along the way? McLean’s drawings have this same meandering, web-like quality. You can follow the tangents of his thoughts and daily routines across his canvas (which is often not a canvas at all, but a found object such as a door, a backpack or a baseball glove). Fragments of text interact with his drawings – overheard conversations, pop culture, art history and street names – all merging into a bright and surrealistic map of his life. It’s no surprise he draws from influences including the automatic drawings of the Surrealists, the text-image paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp.
Fellow Canadian artist Ryan Sluggett talks to McLean about finding scraps, keeping humor as part of art, and using his Mom’s letters as material. His current show, “Soda Gardner,” is up at LA’s Wilding Cran Gallery from January 19 – March 14.
Ryan Sluggett: We share an interest in the work of rather obscure Canadian artists, and you have quite an impressive collection of works on paper. Do any of these works serve as a kind of talisman for you?
Jason McLean: One of the first pieces of Canadian art I acquired was a signed print of Harold Town’s “The Great Divide.” I received it in exchange for helping a neighbor move. The piece was from her ex-husband, and she wanted to completely forget about him so she gave me the work, I think without knowing about Harold Town.
A Canadian abstract painter and illustrator (1924-1990), Harold Town was part of Painters Eleven, a Toronto-based group of abstract artists active from 1954-1960.
Born Raymond Ginn, Pettibon created iconic posters and album art for Black Flag and others in the southern California punk rock scene. Pettibon rose to international prominence as an artist in the 80s, known best for his comic-like drawings and ironic or ambiguous text.
Shayne Ehman and his Mom, Gloria Taylor, made a psychedelic textile piece that my wife and I bought. The power of the patterns and the colours are very overwhelming at times. We have almost had to take it down because it is so powerful. Shayne would often say that we should just use it as a blanket, and sometimes I feel like I am too precious with it or something.
Definitely, the Pettibon pieces I have act as a sort of inspiration, not Canadian but important to my collection. We had traded the work in the early 2000s when I showed with him in Vancouver.
RS: Most of the text in this show is pointed outwards, almost away from the artwork. Quite a few references to Los Angeles. Is this outwardness simply a way of giving a drawing a subject, or is the outwardness meant to disorient and mislead the viewer from an orthodox and more internalized way of looking at art?
JM: It is so intertwined to me that I do not even think about internal or external narratives. I work automatic in some ways, more stream of consciousness, with triggered memories where one thing triggers the next. My work is a personal view, and not in references but in my memories of my own experiences, much like how a family tree would be structured. They are not meant to disorient the viewer, quite the opposite, much of my work is an invitation to immerse themselves and explore my work like a treasure hunt. Think of the overview maps, or city directories. I’m really into secrets of the city, or roadside Americana with its obscured landmarks and pop culture oddities.
RS: Yes I see the work grow and spread like a web chart. I wonder, does this complexity automatically make a work more open-ended and harder to pin down?
“I do try to stay up
and positive about working as an artist,
at times I’m questioning just how important
it is to take oneself so seriously.”
— Jason McLean
JM: Yes, I do like open-ended things. It is the whole thing about being understood or misunderstood. Some people work so hard to have a message come across, and someone will read into that piece something completely different than what the artist intended because we all have different perceptions and life experiences.
RS: Your work is self-deprecating, which is something I see less and less in art, at least in a genuine way. Do you find much art amusing? Is your art intended to balance a deficiency?
JM: I do find a lot of the time I consider myself a lazy art viewer. This answer could get rather bleak, is that what you are reaching for??
RS: I just don’t see self-deprecating humour as a common criteria amongst artists, but I find it very healthy.
Collagist and correspondence artist (1927-1995) whose work figured in the Neo-Dada and early Pop art movements. Johnson was the founder of the New York Correspondence School, a far-ranging mail art network still active today.
JM: I do try to stay up and positive about working as an artist, at times I’m questioning just how important it is to take oneself so seriously. Usually people are very misunderstood or misread in a lot of ways. Maybe that is reason for my reluctance of having one or two generalized meanings about my work. In some ways, but to address this is weird, someone like an artist, say for example, Ray Johnson, would not have a direct answer behind a piece – it is almost like a dream, but to address that is weird because it is like a magician giving away his trick.
RS: The humor also seems to rely on indirectness. I can either accept a joke or wordplay, becoming complicit in the intimacy bond, or I reject or pass over them. Is the telling of a joke an analogy to art viewing in general?
An eccentric American performance artist and actor (1949-1984) whose preferred title was “song and dance man.” His work was highly popular, and maintains a cult following.
JM: No, Yes, No….
Take for example, Andy Kaufman. At times it was hard to know the direction of the smile… I like the awkwardness of not being sure whether to laugh or not, or to know if something is good or bad. And it is almost like a line-up at a food court when everyone lines up in the longest line, because they figure that is the best food. Is that a weird comparison?
RS: No, this macro way of looking at the world does come across in the writing and jokes in the work. I was thinking: the level of awareness in order to get the jokes in your work is low but not zero, much like Pop music and its referents. Do you see this as a democratic gesture?
JM: I guess the viewer needs to get to know me a little bit, and the more they know me the more they would get my references. For instance the text on the window of the gallery – some of it is juvenile, but then there are also some deeper personal meaning in the texts, a back and forth. One thing would be super personal, and the next nonsensical and when they are paired together, it is a form of… Oh to illustrate this I’m thinking of Felix the Cat and his bag of tricks, or think of the certain technique you use to pull off effects in your own work. It is not like they are gimmicks, but they are used as my own techniques of art making, like a painter uses a certain brush for a fine line, my text is used in such a way.
RS: In general drawing is a dry medium and painting is a viscous medium. What is it about the material properties of drawing that works for you?
JM: It really varies, sometimes it can be whatever is convenient and what I have around. I’ll make stuff with found scraps, a lot of it comes down to chance, or then there are the collectors who want a certain material aesthetic that can be considered more ‘serious.’ In some ways, I don’t know if I have one style that I fall on, I work with many different techniques and materials. Over the years of developing these techniques it becomes more like a lifestyle… for breakfast you have certain things everyday, you don’t even think about why you are eating those things, you just do it. You can have coffee in the morning and cereal but why do you do it? You just just do it.
A rapper from the Bronx and founding member of Ultramagnetic MC’s, Kool Keith records prolifically solo and in collaboration, and his lyrics are often abstract, surreal, and sexual.
Stage name of musician Don Van Vliet (1941-2010), who was also part of the Magic Band for many years. Vliet never met popular success but sustained a cult following, greatly influenced later music including new wave and punk, and spent his final years working as a painter.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Kool Keith interviews lately, and the way he describes things and the comparisons he makes – I relate to the way he talks. Or Captain Beefheart.
“I was often a big fan of the readymade.
I lack the confidence
to make a painting on canvas,
so it is a way of working around that.”
— Jason McLean
RS: It seems like your smaller works emphasize your fine motor skills, likening the practice again to writing. Are the door works such as “Fascinating Life Stories of Famous People,” 2014, intended to engage the viewer on a more bodily scale?
JM: Some of the key things in the door were letters from my mom about health, cancer, vitamins, and dry skin. She gave me all of this information, so instead of shelving it away, I wanted to be able to look at it more and work it into a piece. I guess, in some ways, I wanted to have the information maybe soak in more and to not forget about it. There was a lot of time and thought put into the letter and package she sent me, and I need to take better care of myself in some ways.
The doors are like a merger between painting and sculpture – it is standard when working with life-size scale to acknowledge the viewer’s body. The idea of working with doors and the dremeling process could suggest empathy for the labour of the work, almost as a hidden detail – it is subtle in places you might not look at at first.
RS: Which poets have influenced your use of words?
JM: Shayne Ehman, bpNichol, and Bill Bissett, and the picture poems of Kenneth Patchen, the lists of Jean-Michel Basquiat. I wouldn’t call Marc Bell a poet, but how he uses a personal language to construct his stories… somewhat like a personal mythology developed in his characters. That we kind of share in some ways too. I’ve been listening to a lot of David Sedaris and Miranda July podcasts, and their use of language throws me into a state of mind that I enjoy, almost like getting lost in something.
RS: The three dimensional works have a very different quality. I’m thinking of works that have been covered/sealed with paint like “S.O.S. Baby Croc,” 2015. I see them functioning as a hybrid readymade-folk sculpture. Do you think of them taking place in either of these two traditions?
JM: I was often a big fan of the readymade, and I got into Duchamp at a young age. I’m not very good at painting on canvas, so these surfaces become like paintings in some ways. I lack the confidence to make a painting on canvas, so it is a way of working around that. It’s like I’m not a very good writer, but I use a lot of language. Kind of like Porky Pig, he can’t say a word, he’ll stutter the same word three times in a row, and then end up using a different word that means the same thing.