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Jason McLean: Diaries of Place

The words “Location Location Location” adorn the top of a recent drawing by Jason McLean. Rendered in white block letters outlined in red, the words float above text fragments, wandering lines, brightly coloured blobby shapes and elements that suggest roadways and homes. The 2010 drawing is called 13 Green Apples—a rather cryptic title, as the piece contains no obvious visual or textual reference to apples.

McLean has been developing his idiosyncratic approach to drawing since the mid-1990s. His drawings are cartoony, free-form pastiches of things he has seen, places he has visited, snippets of conversation he has overheard or engaged in, and even lyrics of songs that happen to be playing while he works. Personal preoccupations and developments in his own life often make it into his drawings, as do memories triggered by conversations with friends and family. The drawings feel like a form of encrypted diary keeping: riotous, filled-to-overflowing documents of his life and his immediate surroundings. His art reflects various spaces: where he resides physically, where he is at mentally and emotionally, and where he may be headed in the future—location, location, location.

When McLean graduated from Emily Carr in 1997, he worked mainly in sculpture. “I was really into Claes Oldenburg and Jessica Stockholder, and was producing hand-sewn soft sculptures,” he says. “The drawings didn’t really take off until the late 1990s.”

The late 1990s and early 2000s were certainly a watershed in Canadian drawing. McLean found himself part of a cross-Canada network of drawing-based artists such as Julie Doucet, Marc Bell, Peter Thompson, Geoffrey Farmer, Mark DeLong, Shayne Ehman and Jeff Ladouceur. He also associated with several drawing collectives, most notably Dearraindrop and the Royal Art Lodge. During these years, McLean collaborated with several of these artists on drawings, collages, artist books and zines; around 2002, however, he started to focus on his solo work.

“I began to draw on a larger scale,” he says. “My drawings became much looser, more meandering. Often, I wouldn’t notice what was happening in the drawings until other people started pointing things out, such as their strands of narrative, diary-like qualities and mapping. But these things aren’t overt; the drawings are a bit like puzzles.”

McLean is, in a way, an artistic locavore, most interested in learning about and consuming what is closest to him. In the ink-on-paper drawing Mild Toronto Observation (2009), for example, McLean depicts the west end of Toronto—from, roughly, the Parkdale neighbourhood, along Queen Street West to just east of Niagara Street, and south to the waterfront. Many of the area’s landmarks are included, such as the (now rebuilt) Dufferin underpass, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health complex and the GO train, the tracks of which are represented by the word “go” skipping repeatedly across the top of the drawing. The top left corner features a dark rendering of the CN Tower, its shadow piercing into the centre of the drawing like a dagger, and its side emblazoned with the word “lightshow” in reference to the LED lights that play up and down the tower at night. The idea for the drawing came from McLean’s friends Paul Van Kooy and Wendy Gomoll, who run Paul + Wendy Projects, an artist multiple and print business. “They suggested it as a way to orient myself to Toronto when I moved here,” explains McLean. “I was interested in capturing the changing dynamics of the neighbourhood, from the old hotels to Peaches’ old apartment.”

For McLean, details that are usually overlooked become the most important elements in shaping the personality of a place. “When I lived in the Strathcona area of Vancouver from 1993 to 2008, I researched the history of the neighbourhood,” he explains. “I discovered where Jimi Hendrix once played, where David Bowie bought fish and chips, and where Philip K. Dick once lived. Then I started to draw little maps and produce book works. They became a way of compartmentalizing bits of information, and of making some sort of sense out of the randomness of a neighbourhood’s history. Even as a kid, I was more interested in my own backyard than in reading about far-off places.”

Often in McLean’s drawings, buildings and structures morph into faces. (For instance, the Dufferin underpass in Mild Toronto Observation looks like a grinning face with dark, cavernous eyes.) “I am not really sure how the faces started entering into the work,” he says. “Perhaps they started appearing after I was diagnosed with schizophrenia while at Emily Carr. I know that it influences my art, but I never know whether to mention it. It’s a very personal thing, but I also want to be a role model. I want people with the same condition to know that they can have a life and a family, and successfully pursue whatever it is they want to do.”

McLean gained recognition for his drawings and publications, but in his spring 2010 exhibition at Jessica Bradley Art + Projects—his first solo show at the Toronto gallery, which represents him—he returned to sculpture, drawing and painting in his signature style on soft objects, including a well used baseball mitt (Dull Silent Night, 2006) and worn leather goalie pads (Gump, 2007). “I needed to get back into other media after so much drawing,” he explains. “I felt like I was being referred to as ‘Jason, the drawer’ too often. It felt like a good time to somehow revisit the soft sculptures.”

At the end of 2010, McLean and his family left Toronto and moved to London, Ontario, where he was born and raised. “The return to London had been in my head for a while,” he says. “This is the sixth time in about eight years that we’ve moved. Even our cat isn’t fazed anymore when we pack up everything and relocate. While we were planning for the move, I was working on 13 Green Apples. I was thinking about the different tricks that are used by realtors to sell a house. A bowl of fresh green apples placed on a kitchen counter is a homey touch that is used to sell houses from Berlin to Bruno, Saskatchewan.” And, with that, the mystery of that drawing’s title is solved.

The decision to leave Canada’s largest art scene for a much smaller one does not seem to concern McLean at all. Indeed, when I visited his new, large studio (a converted garage behind his home in London’s Wortley Village) in December, several large drawings in various states of completion were already affixed to the walls—even though he’d only taken up residence two weeks prior. Deadlines were looming; the drawings were destined for exhibitions at the galleries that represent him in New York and Padua, Italy, as well as for winter group shows at Barbara Edwards Contemporary in Toronto and the Carousel de Louvre, a shopping centre in Paris.

“Toronto and New York really aren’t that far away from here, and since I already have international gallery representation, I no longer felt that I had to live in a major centre,” says McLean with a shrug. “Yes, I miss the access to so many galleries, but it’s sometimes hard to gain traction in a place like Toronto. How do you do something that really contributes and makes a difference? In a place like London, there are a lot of opportunities for me to pursue things that I probably wouldn’t have in Toronto.” Already, McLean has collaborated with the city’s Landon Library to organize an exhibition of art and ephemera by the London painter Greg Curnoe. This past spring, galleries in Sweden and Norway included his work in group exhibitions, and he showed alongside Mark DeLong at Vancouver’s LES Gallery. Later this year, he is set to appear in group shows of mail art in Seoul and Sydney, and in an exhibition at Allegra LaViola Gallery, his New York dealer.

Discussing long-time influences on his art, McLean mentions the automatic drawings of the Surrealists, as well as the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the drawings of Raymond Pettibon, whose work will appear with McLean’s at the University of Western Ontario’s McIntosh Gallery in 2012. Curnoe’s commitment to engaging with the local, and to basing his art on his life and immediate surroundings, is another inspiration. The spirit of Dieter Roth’s speedy drawings also seems to inform McLean’s “anything goes” approach. But McLean claims he often doesn’t realize that aspects of another artist’s work have entered into a drawing until his work is completed. “It usually depends on who I’m interested in at the time,” he says. “For example, I’ve been looking at Stuart Davis’ paintings lately, but it’s too soon to tell what elements of his work might wind up in mine.”

One of McLean’s biggest influences is much closer to home—his seven-year-old son, with whom he has been making books. “He’s becoming an amazing drawer,” McLean says, beaming with pride as he shows off some of his son’s solo creations, including a Star Wars book filled with convincing renderings of R2-D2 and Ewoks. “Sometimes, when he comes with me to artist-book and zine fairs, his books sell out before mine!” In the McLean family, it seems, the green apples don’t fall too far from the tree.

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