Jason McLean and Ross Bell: Dad Club
June 4 through August 28, 2022
By TYLER MUZZIN, August 2022
Dad Club, the first collaboration between Brooklyn-based artist Jason McLean and Ontario-based sculptor Ross Bell, runs from June 4th to August 28th in the two main galleries at Gallery Stratford, Ontario.
The roots of this collaboration were established well before the pandemic; Bell and McLean met during the install of L.O. Today, an exhibition of London, Ontario-born-and-raised artists held at Museum London in 2013 where McLean was an exhibiting artist and Bell worked as chief preparator, a position he still holds today. The two bonded over a trove of common interests. Dire Straits’ Brother in Arms, late night visits to the Tim Hortons on Wharncliffe Road, the work of London sculptor Murray Favro and his group the Nihilist Spasm Band, a noise band formed in 1965 and originally comprised of eight artists associated with London Regionalism. In many ways, London’s relationship to Toronto parallels that of Boston to NYC. Doing its own thing, but not quite distant enough to shake the influence of the cultural megalith down the road—McLean says “[London] is always in the shadow of the CN Tower.”
Bell came to London for work, leaving a steady commercial run in Toronto with gallerist Georgia Scherman. Originally from Alberta, Bell moved to Guelph, Ontario to pursue an MFA, studying under the supervision of artist James Carl and eventually gravitated to studio life in Toronto. The son of a floor layer, Bell spent years keeping afloat by working in the trades until landing a permanent job as preparator in London.
McLean started out in London, attending the notorious BealART Secondary School before heading west for postsecondary at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver. He then did a stint in Toronto before moving back to London and then, almost inevitably, relocated his family and practice to Brooklyn. The influence of local community and economic stability combined with career growth and mental well-being are some of the tensions that have dragged McLean and Bell across great stretches of North America, eventually propelling them toward artistic collaboration. A second, and more recent influence is fatherhood. McLean has two kids and Bell has five.
McLean’s overall practice itself borders on the puerile and irreverent; his drawings and paintings deceivingly use the language of a bored art student’s math-book margin doodles to draft wildly manic mind maps pointing to restlessness, family life, pop-culture, medication, and an obsessive pursuit of artistic success. Bell says of McLean, “you could lock him in an empty room and he’ll still find ways to make art.” And the work is serious. In Dad Club, McLean’s interventions wrap parasitically over Bell’s carefully constructed forms with a stream-of-consciousness rhythm reminiscent of the Beats’ automatic writing and the audio/visual experiments of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs.
In past texts, McLean has been referred to as a flâneur, but I disagree; rather than Baudelaire’s disinterested spectator of modern life, McLean’s psychological and often confessional inclusions place him closer to the viscerally subjective cartography of Guy Debord and the Situationists (though admittedly more obedient to gallery conventions). Not to mention the frequent “détournement” of everyday things; Cough Park (in collaboration with Glass Capsule, 2017-present), for example, a rerouting of call-in radio programs where anyone, even you right now, can call 347.601.4266 and leave a three-minute message to be preserved on compact disc—perhaps a symptom of McLean’s proclivity to archive and collect all manner of ephemera, from autographed Pez dispensers to grass clippings from Justin Bieber’s lawn.
At the opposite end of artistic methodology is Bell, a minimalist sculptor in the vein of Robert Morris with a sophisticated material economy and formal discipline—an artist with rules. More of a purger than a collector, large slabs of MDF from projects past went into the life-size, retrofit video arcade What You Are Out Here For (animated by Jimi Pantalon and scored and directed by Jason Zumpano, 2022), the mode of display for McLean’s digital drawings. Yet, despite Bell’s clinical building skills, it would be wrong to think of his contributions to Dad Club as merely the substrates for McLean’s graphic and text work. We produce and consume in a logocentric era where the word is often the sanctified truth (or debased mistruth), but objects are equally coded, harbouring cultural and material histories of their own.
The confluence of word and object, picture and plane, leads to a cohesive exhibition. McLean the psychogeographer and Bell the fabricator. Unassuming combinations of artists aren’t uncommon in Canada, with duos Cardiff and Miller (the storyteller and the technician) and Young and Giroux (the engineer and the theoretician) finding international success over the past decade; however, the core of Dad Club is not so much about the synthesis of disparate creative approaches, but the shared experience of being mid-career artist-dads. Bell sent me the song “To Leave Something Behind” by alt singer-songwriter Sean Rowe that goes:
Oh, money is free but love costs more than our bread
And the ceiling is hard to reach
Oh, the future ahead is already dead
And it's time to leave something behind
The question of “what the fuck are we doing?” has crossed the mind of many artists over the past two and a half years. Bell admits that McLean’s energy during the pandemic completely reinvigorated his practice—in fact, there’s almost a paternal relationship between the two with McLean’s radically boisterous illustrations wrapping around Bell’s sculptures with the disobedience of graffiti on the hardedge concrete of brutalist infrastructure. During the slow (four times delayed) build-up to the exhibition, Bell tells me stories of his kids creating their own McLean-esque helmets and objects during the production process, suggesting there might be some truth to the Romantic idiom “Child is father to the man.”
And although I’m not a father (I have no idea what the first rule of Dad Club is) I can locate a similarity between the role of parent and the role of artist; there’s a vulnerability in sharing something you love with an audience that might not care. They might choose a Les Paul over a Stratocaster, a Banksy over a Basquiat. Nevertheless, there will always be other dads, and other artists, to nerd out with. Touring the exhibition, I get the sense that this is the beginning of a lifelong collaboration as arcade games are replaced by consoles, consoles are replaced by VR, and arcade games are suddenly cool again. WM