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The Exhilarating and Exhausting Art of Jason McLean in the LES

The protagonist of this particular painting has an empty box for a head, but he is nonetheless “well spoken.” A window seems to peer into his soul, but there’s little in there except for a pillow, or a marshmallow, or something. He holds his diary in his right hand, a miniature golf club in his left.

His luminous yellow belly dominates the piece like the sun; so bright, in fact, that a palm tree has sprouted on a private beach just beyond his naval.

And all this is happening in the painting’s western hemisphere. The rest appears as an entirely different episode, a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption committed in autumn hues of brown and orange.

There’s so much going on here, so many statements and contradictions being thrust forward at such breakneck pace, that trying to decide what to take away from the piece is at once exhilarating and exhausting.

And perhaps that’s the point. What you see is an ever-changing tableau, like an animation, that adds and subtracts notions faster than your brain can process them.

By the time you get to the piece’s title, tucked inconspicuously along the central figure’s waistband, it may be too late: “Title: I’m as Normal as Blueberry Pie…!!!”

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Jason McLean with legendary downtown actress and artist Penny Arcade at his June 1 opening at Van Der Plas Gallery

If you’ve ever met Canadian-born artist Jason McLean, you have a better chance of understanding his furibund practice. He is soft-spoken, but thoroughly energized, liberal in his focus and utterly capable of jumping from one thought to another with dexterity and grace.

 

Talking to Jason is a lot like looking at his work, which is, after all, one definition of art: a manifestation of the artist’s self, offered in conversation with viewers for their examination and interpretation.

 

“I like to keep people guessing about what I’m going to do next,” he told The Lo-Down on the eve of the opening of his solo show at Van Der Plas Gallery on Orchard Street.

 

“I hope my work makes people’s day-to-day lives a little bit better. My process is very impulsive, I tend to jump from one thing to another, whatever’s holding my interest at the moment,” he added. 

 

Across his oeuvre, McLean’s experience as a creator is clear in his adept blending of various mediums and personal experiences, which coalesce into a distinct visual language that is unmistakably autobiographical.

 

His art is heavily influenced by his eclectic interests of his life, with visible traces of his penchant for collecting objects, creating intricate mind maps that leap from one concept to another, and engaging in collaborative improvisational projects.

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A piece of Jason McLean art in the wild on the LES

McLean invites viewers to step into his world, offering them a glimpse into the labyrinthine pathways of his creativity.

His works are not merely artistic expressions but are narratives of his personal journey, articulated through a vibrant and often whimsical aesthetic that challenges traditional boundaries and encourages a deeper engagement with the visual text.

It should come as no surprise that McLean identifies with the 1960s artists of Fluxus, the radical, experimental art movement that emphasized artistic process over finished product, and valued simplicity, anti-commercialism, and a blurring of art and life. T

he name Fluxus is meant to suggest both “flow” and “effluent,” two qualities that are ever-present in McLean’s work.

At the same time, his work traces the neo-expressionist boundaries of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the outsider tendencies of Art Brut master Jean DuBuffet. With Basquiat, McLean shares an affection for the use of words and letters to augment his comic-strip images.

With the Art Brut crowd, his work shares a freedom of form, abundant use of color and an undisciplined, childlike quality. With both, he shares the ability to bring forth raw, unfiltered expressions that challenge conventional aesthetics and delve deep into the human experience.

McLean grew up in Vancouver and lived briefly in Los Angeles before relocating to Brooklyn, where he grew his multidisciplinary practice, which includes drawings, paintings, sculpture, posters, zines, music, and found art among other things.

“I don’t like feeling boxed into one medium,” he said. “In New York, I started painting on found objects and leaving them around Brooklyn, like shoes, bikes, etc.,” he added. 

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Candy Eyes by Jason McLean

Since then his art practice blossomed, leading to shows at The National Gallery of Canada, The Vancouver Art Gallery, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa in Venice, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Loyal Gallery in Malmo Sweden, Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica, Franklin Parrish Gallery, and Zieher Smith Gallery in New York City.

In addition to the show at Van Der Plas, McLean’s practice is continuing along its pinball-like course.

“I’m starting to show in Europe more, in Germany. I’m doing more costume pieces for absurdist theater in New York, sewing a lot more, and working on some furniture pieces. There’s also a project in the works in Canada returning to postal mail art and my zine collection that I’ve built up over the years,” he said.

And a documentary called Jason Mclean: Boomerang Smile is in the works by Jane Brill, creator of the 2022 documentary on Basquiat graffiti partner Al Diaz called Al Diaz: Like a Bomb.

“Jason is one of the most imaginative, smart, and obsessive people I have ever met,” Brill told The Lo-Down. “Underneath his generous, charming, and gentle demeanor is a force of creative power. His works are at once personal, irreverent, highly crafted, whimsical and sometimes even nostalgic,” she said. 

McLean’s opening at Van Der Plas coincided with the opening of Close Up, a new jazz club located right next door to the gallery.

McLean has had a hand in the club’s decor, including a portion of one of his most impressive collections, autographed Pez dispensers. Among the signees: Paul McCartney, Patti Smith, Tom Petty, Cindi Lauper, Chloë Sevigny, Regis Philben, Martin Scorsese, and John Waters.

I’m as Normal as Blueberry Pie runs through the end of June at Van Der Plas Gallery, 156 Orchard Street, New York.

J. Scott Orr is a career writer, editor and a recovering political journalist. He writes about art for OculaWhitehotUP Magazine,  B Scene ZineThe Lo-DownSculpture and other outlets. He is publisher of the East Village art magazine B Scene Zine. You can find him on Instagram here.

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