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Jason McLean Revs Up Canada’s First Smart Art Car

Jason McLean doesn’t drive but at the moment (it’s late March) he has a car. It is a green and white smart car parked in the high-ceilinged display room of the Mercedes-Benz dealership in London, Ontario. McLean has been coming here for the past month, opening up a nifty mobile studio of suitcases packed with indelible markers and using them to draw all over the vehicle.

Today, he is on his knees on the passenger side with some gold, bronze and green markers stacked on an Edmonton Oilers jersey. He starts to draw an open, upright hand, its fingers labelled with the letters of his first name—JASON. It’s a hello from the artist. But he’s not done. To the left, he draws a forking path. It has leaves, so let’s call it a tree branch. The hand now looks like it is part of a landscape. There’s a horizon line, a directional arrow, a bus stop sitting on the word careful. Then, on the right side of the hand, he draws a beak. The tree becomes an unlikely bird. It is smoking a cigarette. An accompanying speech balloon asks, “Going my way?”

That “way” would be all the way to Vancouver, where McLean’s car debuts this Saturday at the Vancouver Art Gallery as part of the Canadian Art Foundation’s Gallery Hop Vancouver. Commissioned by the foundation and smart Canada as part of a partnership arrangement, the car represents something of a homecoming for the London-based McLean, who graduated from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 1997 and started his career as an artist in Terminal City. For McLean, the car project is partly a way to remember those days and to remember his own personal connections to cars, driving and travelling.

Asked if he ever drove, McLean confesses, “ I did drive briefly when I was 17, and when I was 20 and living in Brights Grove, Ontario. My dad tried to give me a green Volkswagen Rabbit to drive out to Vancouver. My dad was a car dealer and his dad was a car dealer, and my brother was in the car business.”

“The last time I drove was in Tucson, Arizona. I drove for five minutes with my friend Sandi Kilby. It was very scary. Stick shift! We had just finished working as roadies on a music tour with the Japanese noise band Omoide Hatoba—a side project of the Boredoms—and had to drive back to Vancouver.”

Talking with McLean is its own trip. Memories and associations come fast and free, much like the images and words in his drawings, which cluster around ideas of space and the voices that fill it. In starting his project, McLean set out on some research about art-car projects; the one he kept coming back to was not in the famous BMW art-car pack that includes Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter, among others. Rather, it was the white 1965 Porche convertible that rock singer Janis Joplin asked one of her roadies, Dave Richards, to paint.

In the showroom in London, surrounded by his open suitcases and markers, McLean mentions Joplin’s car several times as a reference point. The car—a restored version of which is usually on view at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland—shows a psychedelic landscape with mountains, cracked earth and butterflies. This landscape flows around the car together with portraits of band members, like a travelogue mural. McLean picked up on the fluid time dissolves between its images.

McLean’s smart car is a journey of seasons—spring, summer, fall, winter—moving from front to back. Annotations of places lived and people remembered, as well as safe driving tips, arrive via delicate, colourful lines that carry the light imprint of reverie. It does not call excessive attention to itself and would require some serious tailgating to be seen and read in motion on the highway or city streets. It is a car at its best when parked, where it broadcasts a notational history of spaces usually tracked by an odometer, measuring McLean’s experience with cars and landscapes and people. It’s a thinking person’s car, a smart car in the fullest sense of the term.

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