Toronto-based artist Niall McClelland opened his solo show, “Hot Sauce”, at Clint Roenisch gallery last week. The show’s title is a reference to Philip “Hot Sauce” Champion, who played for athletic shoe brand AND1’s streetball tour, which peaked in popularity in the early 2000s. It was his arrogance on the court and irreverent dismissal of the idea of good sportsmanship that were the main source of his appeal and ultimately what dampened his prospects of big league success. Drawing inspiration from other rebellious youth icons, the show is an eclectic collection of what McClelland considers to be the voices of a generation of malcontents.
Working in various media, from more traditional process-based paintings, to silkscreens, to ready-mades like basketballs and his friends’ cigarette butts, McClelland pays homage to a time when shitty attitudes prevailed, and were idolized in alternative youth culture. Channeling the essence of the swaggering displays of bravado by street ballers and the disdain for mainstream society held by the likes of Kurt Cobain, Niall takes a step back to reflect on his, and his peers’, once-held attitudes. With age, says Niall, comes the muting of those firmly-held beliefs and a softening of the fervent idolization of those icons.
We caught up with Niall at Clint Roenisch gallery to talk more about his current exhibition.
Why Philip Champion?
I grew up watching basketball and always watched the AND1 videos and he was the standout for me. The connection is his bad attitude. That was the attitude you grow up idolizing and putting up on a pedestal, like Allen Iverson or Stephon Marbury, or players who had a chip on their shoulder. They were good for highlight reels, but when you watched their career arcs, you’re like, this is what happens when you have this attitude. You get into the NBA, you’re a super selfish player, you have a few hot years and then your team starts losing. You might be scoring 31 points a night, but your team’s not winning the NBA championship and soon no one’s giving you the salaries and no one wants to play on the team because you’re selfish and suddenly your career starts going down. And basically, things fail. You have these sort of highs that come off of these lows, and this sort of immaturity that these players have.
Is that an attitude you espouse in your own career?
Yeah I was naively thinking that was cool, and being cool was what you wanted. And once you get a little older and look around, the guys who won at the end aren’t necessarily the cool guys. They’re the hard working engineers behind the scenes. It was also watching friends who were in bands that used to tour the world, and they made a bunch of money, and then they didn’t have to work for ten or 15 years. And then suddenly it’s over and they don’t have any skills other than doing drugs and staying up all night. And suddenly they’re 38 years old and they have to figure out their lives again. Just thinking about that attitude and getting a little bit older myself and trying to survive but still holding those things up highly; it’s a contradiction.
So this show is more a testament to the attitude you used to hold.
Yeah, and I admired as well. One of silkscreen panels is a Kurt Cobain suicide note in which he talks about selling out his community. He feels so guilty about selling out his punk ideology that he shot himself in the fucking head at 27 years old. That’s insane that he believed so much in this pretty fictitious sort of ideology. You have a kid. You have the rest of your life to live. If it wasn’t you, it was somebody else that was going to do this, so does this seem like it was that important? Important enough to kill yourself over? We idolize this guy, but what an immature way of thinking. So I think this Philip Champion stuff is a way of thinking, an attitude that everyone I knew growing up put on a pedestal. And now when we have some distance, it’s like, hey maybe that didn’t work out for those guys. That’s not real life.
You have some silkscreens hanging in the front of the gallery, and the images on them display a disdain for yuppies, and gentrification, and have this “fuck cops” mentality. Is that something you’ve had direct personal experience with, or is that you channeling the attitudes of your idols?
Both. I’ve had that attitude and now have taken a step back. There’s a lot more grey area. The “fuck yuppies” one, is from a book called “No More Prisons”. Have you read “Bomb the Suburbs” written by William Upski Wimsat as a teenager? It came out in the 90s. It was a cult book for anyone who was into hip hop or graffiti, and it was all his street philosophy and these philanthropic projects that he’s done. Sort of his life story about growing up as a rich kid in downtown Chicago, who’s into graffiti and hip hop, and all of his friends being a lot poorer. After that, he came out with a sequel of “No More Prisons” which is his sobering reflection of how he’s matured and he talks about the first book and his problems with his perspectives in that book. So this was one of the flyers that was in it and he was like, “this is some of the shit that we spread around. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing”. So I thought there was something in that that shared my reservations about this youthful angst and attitude. Just a maturation.
So is each of those silkscreen images is taken from a different source?
Yeah, and sometimes it’s got more of a back story, and sometimes I just came across it and it stuck with me.
Do you have any intention of making actual prints with those?
No, but if someone were to buy them, I think it would be awesome if they made some prints. It’s prepped for them to do it. I thought about it, but when I saw the blue, I thought it was perfect. I like how they have a painting quality, and with art I try to make sure I have a bit of restraint. It’s easy to keep overworking things until they just become fussy and less interesting.
Speaking of process, you go through quite a treatment with these painted panels. If you have a vision of how something is supposed to look, and you’re using a process that might have an uncertain outcome, how do you know when to stop or when to start over?
Intuitively. With a lot of things I’ll be trying to make one thing, and putting all my efforts and focus into one thing, and I’ll look at this ephemera that came about from me making that and I’ll take the piece I had been working on and put it away. The other stuff sometimes is more interesting to me than what I was attempting to do. So trying to keep an open mind about that stuff, go with things, and let them happen. Just focus on that thing until that’s done and I’ll see what remains. I started these as big paintings, the first iteration.
When you say first iteration, do you mean these specific canvasses or your first attempt at this process in general?
No, the first time I figured out this process was like 2 years ago. I was in the studio when we had just moved in there, and we didn’t have a lot of good walls to do any of that stuff, but a lot of floor space. So I was painting this stuff on the floor and I was just smoking weed and painting with a big stick. I had seen Brice Marden painting with a big stick in a documentary and thought that it looked like fun. You can lose control and I was making these paintings, and they were not good, but they were enjoyable to make. Every time I would finish one I would prime over it so no one would see it, because they were ugly and I didn’t want people looking through the windows and thinking that I was doing these things. So I finished one and I wanted to move it out of the way and I realized it was stuck to the floor. So I just ripped it off the floor and I looked at the other side and was like, “oh my god, this is awesome, this is so much better than what I was trying to paint.” So some of the paint just leaks through and some of it doesn’t, whatever the quality of the floor in certain patches, that would rip off or not rip off. And eventually I learned to have a bit more control with it. And then I found a bunch of paint across the street. Do you know Brian Richer who runs Castor design, the lighting company? He’s a friend of mine whose warehouse is across the street and he gives me lots of shit all the time. So he was throwing away all this industrial paint, and that’s when I did this one, and I just loved that the colour was coming through and I hadn’t played with this kind of colour before. It was mistints, and his garbage.
Your previous work does have more of a sombre colour palette, so is that the reason you’ve moved into something lighter?
When I started working in black and white, it was simply to dial things back into a very simple, graphic thing. I didn’t want to think about colour. I just wanted to make it easier for myself, just taking a few things out of the equation. That’s kind of a graphic design thing where logos are supposed to look good in just black and white so you have to look at them in that black and white. And then you can add colour and you can fancy it up. But if it looks good in black and white, it’ll look good in colour.
I thought the painted panels related to the basketball. They sort of look like abstracted courts.
The palette comes from, or at least I connected it to the video, it’s a similar palette to the video. And the fact that I’ve been doing them on the floor. Basketball is about the floor, and these are on the floor. And it’s sort of an industrial palette.
Now that you have this show up and running, are you taking a pause or are you continuing to work?
I have a show in Paris at the end of February and I’m going away for two weeks so I have to finish the work this week and then ship it off, and then I’m going to take a small break.
Niall McClelland: Hot Sauce runs at the Clint Roenisch Gallery in Toronto until February 28.