By MATTHEW RYAN SMITH, OCT. 2014
Last year I visited Jason McLean and his family in their London, Ontario home to talk about the Canadian Pez Museum, a joint-project between Jason and his sons Felix and Henry. It was a cold afternoon so Jason made hot coffee. We shared some laughs. Much has changed since then—I’ve moved back to London and Jason and his family have moved to New York City. We just can’t seem to be in the same city for very long. I wanted to catch up with Jason to see how New York has changed his style, and whether or not the “big city” was a distraction or a revelation. In Canada, Jason is widely known for his eclectic use of media, from magic markers and napkins to army helmets and geographical maps. It is there that he maneuvers between profoundly intimate autobiographical reflection and rich cultural history—local, regional, or otherwise. At present, his illustrations are included in the exhibition Contemporary Drawings from the National Gallery of Canada, currently at the Mendel Gallery in Saskatoon, while south of the border he’s making a place for himself.
Matthew Ryan Smith: Let’s start with your move from London, Ontario to New York City. Why New York now, and what does New York offer you?
Jason McLean: I’ve wanted to live in New York for twenty years, maybe longer. Health issues set me back sometimes, and it just seemed like “now or never.” I’m 43 years old now, and if I waited any longer, I mean, if I moved to New York after I was 50, it would seem like I was trying to hold onto my youth.
MRS: So the timing felt right?
JM: Yeah, my kids were still young enough that it was somewhat easy to transfer them around. I was also trying to rebuild. I went to Los Angeles for three and a half months, managed to get into a gallery there, and it seemed like things had dipped a little bit in my career. I was doing very well in Canada, but I wanted to keep that international market going, I don’t know if that’s the right word for it…
MRS: To be more visible in the US?
JM: Yeah, things slid out, and I didn’t have representation in Los Angeles for a while, but now I’m with Wilding Cran Gallery there, and I developed friendships with a community of people in Los Angeles. In New York, I had the relationship with my gallery fizzle out, so I’m trying to find a new gallery here in New York to show with. I have a group show with curated by Beth DeWoody at Franklin Parrasch Gallery that opens on the 23rd of October, and hopefully that’ll lead to something good. The transition has been really great in many ways, mainly because I know many people here.
MRS: You had already lived in New York, no?
JM: Last year I came to New York six times. We moved from Vancouver to Toronto, to London, ON to Los Angeles for three months, then we moved to New York. In between Los Angeles and New York we were in Vancouver and Victoria [BC] for a bit. We were homeschooling the kids along the way, and it was pretty wild. A mini-tour or something.
MRS: Would you say that the work that you made in London is different than the work you made in New York? Can you gauge the difference?
JM: I feel that the work I’m making in New York is maybe a little more “I have got to get to work in New York.” Maybe that’s a little too honest to say that, but, in LA I was really focused, and I had my studio at my house. I had a ceramic studio I was working with. Here, in New York, I’ve been working, but I’ve been joking with Jessica Bradley at my Toronto gallery, that I need to get down to some serious work. I’ve been working on couches a lot, and on the fly, in buses and on subways. Basically wherever I can make the work. I have a studio here, but it’s not close to my place. It’s hard to get into a rhythm, but it’s starting to go pretty good right now. I’ve bought a bunch of doors today that I’m going to paint and Dremel down at this place that has recycled bits and stuff. I’m displaying stuff at a nightclub that’s going to get knocked down called “Death by Audio.” It’s been hard because we’ve been having so many houseguests, too, and we’ve been going to events and things. I can see now that when people move to a larger center the work gets quicker.
MRS: Is the larger city a distraction?
JM: Yeah, I think so. But yet, in London, ON, there were distractions, too. Sometimes I wouldn’t have the inspiration to get motivated to make the work. I do get a little lonely here, and I romanticize a little about living in London again. There’s a certain comfort to living in London.
MRS: Maybe because London is, on some scale, a large city, but it really isn’t. It’s one of Canada’s biggest smallest cities.
JM: It’s the tenth or eleventh largest city in Canada, I think.
MRS: You’re right, and I think it does afford some freedom, because it does have this suburban feel because it’s sprawled. I don’t want to say that it’s relaxing, but it’s slower. I can appreciate that, recently moving from Toronto to London myself, there’s not the same sense of urgency. I don’t feel the pressure to run around and see this and do that. London is more conducive to working.
JM: The other day I went out to run errands with my son Henry and I did about six errands and picked up artworks from past shows, and did trades. I was out all day then went to an opening. I had two backpacks and a box I was carrying with me, and I went into the opening and people were asking: “what are you doing?” [Laughs]. I had literally been out for eight or nine hours that day. It feels really good because I was using the city for what I should have been doing with it. You have to really pursue it or sometimes you can get intimidated in ways.
MRS: You mentioned that, because of all that is going on in New York, you need to be more spontaneous or the work is quicker?
JM: I found that my work has changed. It’s getting more immediate and loose. I feel like there’s more freedom in the US in same ways. It doesn’t need to be as structured or as precious. I don’t know if conservative is the word, but it seems like there’s more openness to style changes—it’s not as rigid, but maybe that’s more of a London thing, or Toronto. Maybe you can get away with more here. I think people will be more accepting of my style changes, and the new work I’m making. I’ve been doing a lot of collage on paper, and gluing a lot of drawings onto collages. The larger works I’ve been making the other day were really loose, and if I had spray cans I probably would have gone at the paper, and stepping on the paper, and tearing it with my teeth.
MRS: It sounds like you’ve been attacking it.
JM: Yeah, I’ve been really going for it. Dipping markers in paint, and my fingers, and it felt really good. I was like, “I hope people go for this.” Sometimes I feel like you have to hold back, though. You get a certain style and people want that, and you want to push something to new ground.
MRS: So it’s been liberating aesthetically. Can you talk a bit about the Pez Museum some more? As you know, I was commissioned by the Globe and Mail to write an article about the Pez Museum, then the editors changed, and they decided they didn’t want to run it anymore nearly a year later. Maybe we can talk about it here, rather than the newspaper that mishandled my work.
JM: My kids and I started the Pez Museum a few years ago in London, ON. It’s a collection of Pez dispensers that we started in the basement of our house. We had an audio component in the room, too. There was art on the wall that was aspired by Pez, and people that committed drawings to our wall. We had a homemade vending machine that the kids made, and we had a map of the world where Pez were made. We had a donor wall, a Pez rug, and a guestbook, and everyone from Rick Rhodes from Canadian Art [Magazine] came to see it, and tourists came to see it, too. We got Michael Snow to sign one in Detroit, and it really took off. It was really anyone who I was interested in or admired, someone famous or someone I really respected, I got to sign it: Laurie Anderson, Terry Riley, Dave Letterman, Sarah Silverman, Regis, Kelsey Grammar; artists like Adam Green of the Mouldy Peaches, baseball players, musicians. It’s a really fun project, but it’s been distracting to the point where I’d go to an opening just to get an autograph.
MRS: So, it’s really a mobile museum?
JM: There’s an autograph museum that we run through my friend Anne called Salmagundi West, in Vancouver, in Gastown. That’s where we have a lot of the autographed Pez, at her store in the downstairs part of it, in this cave. So it’s actually London, Vancouver, and the collection at our house in Brooklyn. We did have a satellite space when we lived in London at the Cartoon House in North Williamsburg, which was a quick set-up. It was mainly a loft that a cartoonist would stay at and visit, but they got their space taken away from them because a condo was being built, so we’re kind of looking for a space right now. There was an article in the New York Metro about the Pez Museum, and it talked about us looking for a home. It’s a fun project, at times too much, I have to kill it at times, pressure wise. I feel like I always have to have a Pez and a sharpie. It got to be a bit much. We’re also doing a documentary on the Pez Museum, directed by Serena McCarroll. The domain name is www.pezmuseum.com. We’ve had some people offer to screen the documentary, but it’s not finished yet.
MRS: To follow a different trajectory, what artists are you looking at right now? What has been a major inspiration in New York?
JM: When I was in LA I really got into watching all the Louis CK episodes. I really got into the headspace of that, and the David Sedaris podcasts. I’m also reading a really great book, Captain Beefheart interviews and texts, called A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit gets to a Diamond. It’s anonymously put out, but I do know the person who put it out. I bought a Ray Johnson book, but I missed the show at MoMA. I’ve been thinking about Ray a bit, and doing a lot of postal art. Someone said I should look up Rob Pruitt. I’ve also been looking at a lot of friends’ work.
MRS: Has it made its way into your work?
JM: Well, I’m also really interested in graffiti stickers, in graffiti art. Henry, my youngest son, has been collecting graffiti stickers since we were in Los Angeles. So I’ve been collecting graffiti stickers with him off the street, and I’ve been noticing stuff on the street a lot more. I really like going to see Terry Riley, piano music; it’s pretty incredible. I wasn’t really familiar with his music. I listen to a lot of the same things over and over again, a lot of Dylan. I watched some documentaries. One on Levon Helm…
MRS: Dirt Farmer.
JM: Yeah, and I kind of got into thinking about London, ON. My Dad had met Levon [Helm] before, and hung out with The Band in Grand Bend, Ontario. I’ve been thinking about archives a bit, and submitting to my own archive at Weldon library at Western University. Keeping scraps, and keeping an organized scrap collection—anything I write down or maps I draw, and submitting them to the archive, and things I collect. I constantly have an envelop of stuff to send to the Weldon. There’re so many different directions things are going, you know? I have some touring shows on the go, and there’s a published book coming out by Black Dog of my work.
MRS: I wanted to ask you what does the future hold in terms of plans, and shows, or projects, or work that you want to make?
JM: I’m showing some book-art related things. I’m going to have some solo shows coming up. I think I have a show at Wilding Cran coming up next year, which will be fun. I have a lot of work there right now that I made in Los Angeles. I think I have a show at Jessica Bradley Gallery in Toronto in April of 2015. I basically want to get into a good working process. Just being a Dad, and having two kids, and being in a relationship, and moving around so much, and being a landlord renting our place out. It’s been a lot to juggle; it’s constantly going in one direction, then another direction, then another direction. It’s all pretty frantic. I go through waves. I mean, I just want to survive and pay the bills and be happy. I bought some coconut oil the other day at the store, and I was pretty excited about that, so maybe you get satisfaction in small things, you know? WM
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Matthew Ryan Smith, Ph.D. is a freelance writer, independent curator, and sessional professor based in London, ON. Matthew has published extensively on art and culture in publications including Canadian Art, Prefix Photo, ESSE, Briarpatch, Blackflash, C Magazine, Alternatives Journal, First American Art, Artinfo Canada, Magenta, artUS, Contemporary Canadian Glass, Visual Arts News, FUSE, and Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Criticism. He has also published in several academic journals including (forthcoming) Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, (forthcoming) Photography and Culture, (forthcoming) Intersection: Canadian Journal of Music, (forthcoming) Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, The Senses and Society, TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, Canadian Journal of Native Studies, WRECK: Graduate Journal of Art History, Visual Art & Theory, and Shift: Queen’s Journal of Visual and Material Culture. Matthew can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org