Niall McClelland's exhibition at Wil Aballe Art Projects is titled He To Whom The Early Bird Runs Best Learns Wisdom and Knowledge, after a proverb misremembered by Charlie Brown. It's a compact show comprised of four pieces, which all come together under McClelland's vested interests in personal history, time, and labour.
The 'Catholic guilt' he ascribes to his work ethic seems at odds with the punk references that inevitably turn up in reviews, though it's this intersection of careful labour and anarchic carelessness that shapes McClelland's work most clearly. Like a scientist determining the fixed variables in a lab experiment, McClelland sets the parameters under which chance accidents can happen. It may seem instructional in description, but in experience it's all visceral: rich, kaleidoscopic colour blots and movingly deep toner blacks populate his works, where rot blooms beautifully in administered patterns and shattered fluorescent tubing provides the stratum for a seepage of earthy pigment.
"When I can explain how much work I'm putting into something to members of my family, it can make sense to them. And in a weird illogical way, it makes sense to me," he says. "It's justifying [my practice] to a whole part of my life that doesn't understand art but can understand work."
In spite of the insinuations, his involvement in "heavy subcultures," as he describes them, is casual, even distant. "Sometimes I think that there is this canned interview that's somewhere out there that people read and it perpetuates itself; the amount of times I've read my name with 'punk' and 'graffiti'…" he trails off, half-threateningly, before resuming. "But there's no separation between that stuff and every other part of life. As with anything, these heavy subcultures have ethos and rules — like 'no rules' — which get ingrained in you. Some of them stick and some of them don't. Being young and being into that stuff had a pretty big effect in terms of decision making, even through the bad qualities that are inherent to those things. I still have a hangover from some of them."
Teenanger, a crumpled-up setlist from a basement party of yore, aestheticizes the subcultural 'hangover' that McClelland speaks about. The dashed-off, shorthand song titles become a cryptic poem that begins barbed and ends on a swooning, love-song vibe. It's a dirty, nostalgic little fossil from a fun time that is no more, and is perhaps the most initially confounding work of the four gathered in Aballe's gallery. Those who know McClelland as an obsessor over process and duration might ask, where is the labour in Teenanger?
"I liked that this was the ephemera of [those experiences]," he says. The history embedded in Teenanger reflects those inherent the other works. Perhaps its most obvious mirror is No Maps — Work, a tacked-up pile of the black-and-white abstractions that McClelland is now infamous for. Its informal hanging is meant to reference posters stuck to a telephone pole ("I'm sure collectors are dying to take it apart and display each one in a grid," quips Wil Aballe), but its components exist in too few of a number for that metaphor to truly take off. Instead, one finds themselves lingering in the work's powerful tactility: the incision of ghostly white creases across a vastness of toner black.
"My hand and body is put into this stuff," McClelland explains, describing No Maps' making. Each sheet was printed off at a local Kinkos then folded into palm-sized packets, which he stashed in the pockets of his jeans. The warmth and friction created by his movements over the course of several months would wear the ink away to a snowy white along the folds. "It shows this history, and a life that these things have led. When I'm thinking about art these days, it just keeps on coming back to that — creating work that has its own history and has its own life to it."
If one was searching for a way to summarize McClelland's exhibition, that would be it. The cardboard portfolio hung next to No Maps, spraypainted with an '80s subway patina, is dated 1994-2014 — the years that he used this humble spread to transport his work across the country and back again ad infinitum. It was also the portfolio that McClelland used to bring all the works in He To Whom The Early Bird Runs… to Vancouver. It's the most jarring piece in the show, a sloppy riot of colour amongst the black, blues, and whites of the other pieces, and essentially so. (McClelland, for the record, spraypainted it as a teen.)
"Richard Aldridge said something about his work, which leans towards ugly at times," McClelland notes. "He said, "I don't want to be confined by my own bad taste." I thought that rings pretty true for me. When you're off put by something, sometimes you need to take note of that thing and not be afraid of that. Don't confine yourself to what you naturally just gravitate towards. Open up a little. Let yourself get like this even though it's repulsive to some people."
DTES.VFD.HALL #2 - BOOTLEG, is a consequence of embracing such repulsion. Originally a mural painted by a fire-fighter in the Downtown Eastside Fire Hall, the illustration — of the grim reaper, holding a scythe-cum-hypodermic needle and nestled in a swathe of flame emblazoned with the text 'It's Not The End of the World, But We Can See It From Here' — was a source of civic offence during the tenuous time leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Asked by the Chief of Police to remove it, the firefighters instead stacked boxes in front of it to hide it. McClelland was fascinated by both its backstory and aesthetic, and began bootlegging the image to make t-shirts and posters. The work hanging in WAAP is a byproduct of this compulsion: literally the silkscreen with which these items were made, stained with ink and emulsion around the image's negative shape.
"I just thought that there's something really interesting in the pride that [the DTES firefighters] keep in [this image], contrasted with the offence that [the city] takes to it," he offers. "The knock on [the firefighters] is that they were making fun or taking what was happening outside of the station too lightly. But the firefighters don't think of it that way. They're just thinking of what they put into their job and how much they do care about how sad the situation is. The way I look at it, they're thinking about themselves and what they deal with in this neighbourhood. It's about them, not about the outside."
McClelland has a thing for the disparaged and underappreciated, perhaps because he sees a bit of himself in it. His materials are cheap, found, and honest. He eschewed his MFA. And drawing — which is what he classifies his work as — is history's most trivialized medium, after all.
"I like the look of an underdog," he says. "I feel more aligned with that than with a champion, a purebred."
McClelland comes out on top in everyone's minds, however; he's been a darling of the art world since his Stain and Tapestry pieces made their first mysterious appearance in the gallery circuit, and it's hard to deny him of it facing the intensity of his dedication. Where lesser artists become formulaic in their success, McClelland is hell-bent on re-inventing himself and his practice, allowing — as he always does — unpredictability spin out through the structure of his life.
He to Whom the Early Bird Runs Best Learns Wisdom and Knowledge closes tomorrow. #528-2050 Scotia St., buzzer #189. Gallery hours 1 - 5pm.
Get in touch with Niall McClelland.