Knowing that Niall McClelland used to reside here in Vancouver and now lives in Toronto, I decided to mail him a welcome package to try and lure him back to our Westcoast. In a small box I placed a small dollar store notepad designed to look like those old composition notebooks, a 1970’s blank Vancouver postcard with an image of the Totem pole semi-circle in Stanley Park, a really bad Black Sabbath cassette that I had lying around my apartment (an ode to his metal music infused artworks), a cheap point and shoot camera with a flash and a few other little trinkets. Knowing that some of Niall’s methodology can be about the immediate or alternatively an almost infinite amount of time (objects that have been folded in his pocket for months), I figured he could do what he wanted with these objects and whenever he wanted. After he got the package I called him up. Here’s our transcribed interview which was recorded over a somewhat shitty Skype connection.
Mark Hall-Patch: Hey Niall, hows it going?
Niall McClelland: Ehhhh, pretty good, pretty good.
First thing, so you got the package and you were saying you are going through the notebook?
Yeah, I kind of just want to fuck around with the notebook cause its a good place to doodle… might not send it back, cause so far it’s looking like total shit.
That’s cool, but it’s funny cause that was the item I thought would be the last thing you would touch. I just kind of added it just because.
I have the camera too and I’ve been taking photos on it. I share a large dungeon studio with a friend of mine, Jeremy Jansen and I feel like he’s in probably half the photos, I guess cause we’re together a lot of the time, especially when it seem like an appropriate moment to take photos…
Are you guys working on something right now?
Nothing really serious right now, we kind of do stuff all the time together but we don’t have anything locked down between us. Actually, we do have something that just wrapped up a few minutes ago. This Toronto based artist Jeff Bierk took over our studio for the past week, he’s a solid photographer (side note, he’s actually the younger brother of Sebastian Bach haha) and yeah he needed a place to show a new, very personal photo series titled “The Back 40”, so we invited him to come and have his show at our studio.
I’ve been talking to your friend Reid and he was giving me ideas of what to send you, so he gave me an old catalogue of yours…
Oh yeah… haha great dude, we’ve done some cool work together over the years.
So yeah we were talking about Vancouver, cause you lived here for a while and you went to school here. So when was the last time you were in Vancouver and what were your impression of the city after being away for so long?
I went back in for a small show, well a small project at Wil Aballe Art Projects in February. I have a bunch of friends who still live there so it was good. I left in 2007 and I have been back periodically around every 3 years or so and it keeps getting busier every time I go. I’ve been going back to areas that I used to live in and just seeing how dense they are. Visiting friends who live in the same neighborhoods, and those places used to be a dead strips and now they’re bustling, I think its cool…. Like Main street, or the Kingsway where I used to live. I mean, I have nostalgia for how crummy and cheap it was… but at least it’s not stagnant, you know?
Yeah when I was younger I used to go there to skate and there was one skate shop and not much around it…it used to be pretty dangerous and shit.
When I moved there in 1999, I lived at Knight and Kingsway-ish and I remember Kingsway being pretty sketchy, but I was also relatively young and naive, and Main Street wasn’t scary but it looked pretty sinister because it was so empty. And I remember coming across East Hastings which was pretty mind blowing for a 19 year old. Like, “Oh. Vancouver. That’s what they were talking about, I get it now..fuck.”
You said in past interview that it has impacted your work, It seems like you like to collect a lot of things, so that area would be a goldmine for collecting weird shit.
I don’t know, I mean, it has a lot of character and interesting architecture and stuff, and I hung out a lot in the neighborhood, because you know, my friends hung out there, and I could get a studio space and drink for cheap, same old story. I guess subconsciously a bunch of stuff kind of seeped in but I always want to be careful when talking about the Downtown East Side as being a big influence because, I didn’t really live long in the neighborhood, and there are so many people who are legit “Downtown East Side”, living and working in the area. You know? It’s a real culture and even though I rented a studio space there, lived nearby and was around a lot, I still feel like I was seeing it from a tourist perspective, it was kind of like a bit of the spice of life. I liked looking at it from an outsider perspective and there are definitely things that I got to know well to an extent, but I always want to be a little cautious about claiming ownership over being too influenced by it, because I feel like I didn’t know it enough to be influenced by it in a REAL meaningful way. There are people who’ve lived there for a lot more time, and I really respect and were really more of a authentic part of the “Downtown East Side” culture. I was just passing through.
What were some of the places that did influence you, in a real way?
For me those little streets around where the Home Depot and the trains station are… Terminal, like all the parks that were over there that were empty and nobody paid attention to, those was more interesting to me. False creek, and the train tracks, pre-Olympics, when that was overgrown and all the neighborhoods between Commercial and Stadium that were more industrial and abandoned, those were more interesting to me. Same with Crab Park and the various industrial shoreline spots.
It must be funny to come back now and see all the changes. It’s always interesting when you come back after a while. I went away to Ireland for a couple of years, to Cork…I know you go to Northern Ireland often…
Yeah, I’ve been there a lot and even though it’s small, there are so many little towns and just so much to see but I’ve traveled a lot over there since I was a kid, covered a lot of stuff. I stayed mainly in the North though, dipped down south a lot less often than I would have liked.
Yeah I never made it up there
It’s so small but at the same time so dense, my family has a farm there so I will literally just sit there for two weeks…I really should go south more often. Crazy accents in Cork! I can’t understand shit haha
Oh man, when I landed down there, I could barely understand a word that anybody was saying, it was insane.
Yeah totally, when I was younger there was a program that would bring lower income Irish kids to Canada for apprenticeship programs and they would need a place to stay for about 2 to 4 months while they did the program. So every year we would have another teenager come and stay with us and some of them were from Cork and it was impossible to understand what they were saying. Cool accent though.
The interesting thing about Ireland or specifically where I was, was that in certain pockets in Ireland, I found that people were into doing something but it was very specific, like they focused on one thing and that was their practice and they were so into it and so passionate. Like these guys I was hanging out with who were really into circuit bending, all these old men who were really, really into sound art. I don’t know if you came up with that in Northen Ireland…
Honestly I don’t know if I have ever met a single artist over there! Like I will check out museums and galleries, but when I’m there I’m mostly hanging out with family way out in the country and not really touching any artistic community…The only guy I know, and I don’t even know him personally, is this artist Alex Rose who is represented by the same gallery in New York. He is kind of a reclusive character who does these collages, which he burns and then sort of buries and ends up showing the remains. Really ceremonial stuff, I really dig it. Really personal shit that seems refreshingly out of sync with any current art trends etc.
When you go there are you going to get away from your life, kind of take a break from city life and stuff? To have a blank mindset…
Yeah when I am there I don’t really spend too much time in the city, it’s like someone coming to Canada and not spending any time in Vancouver or Toronto or Montreal, like they are staying in Truro New Brunswick, or a farm community…although it’s a different density in Ireland so it’s not the same kind of rural we have here. It’s not really my intention to get away when I go, I just don’t know anybody there beside my sprawling family haha
In 2008 you did that Mural Installation in Toronto “Free Derry” and I knew it was from Ireland but I had to figure out the context of where that was geographically and all the connotations behind it. Was that pretty lost on people locally?
Yeah totally, it was more of a joke than anything for me. It was a re-creation of a 60’s mural from the troubles in Derry, basically marking the entrance to a pre-dominantly Catholic area. I always thought that mural was kind of cool and just kind of grew up surrounded by those politics in my house and being around them in Ireland. When I started looking at some of that stuff, I saw that New York was a place where Catholic militant groups got a lot of funding and Toronto was a city where the Protestants militants got their money. It’s a historically Protestant city, with all the tight rules and bylaws and a thick level of conservatism under everything. This city is still living in the hangover of its Protestant past. So when I was asked to do the new mural I just thought about it right away, a few Irish friends from Vancouver where really into it and my dad saw it and got it right away, But there was a really colorful mural underneath and a few of the Portuguese ladies that were around didn’t really like my scrappy letters…I had forgotten about that, it was a while ago…
You and your friend Lukas Geronimas did Fighting back in the day? I think I came across it through the website Happy Accidents.
Yeah, Fighting was a project we started to get us off our asses and find a reason to make shit, sort of push ourselves a bit. It was a just a good reason to hang out and create things for the hell of it. It snowballed into all sorts of other things, for better or for worse, and got we put it to rest in 2007 after a great show at Ambach and Rice (formerly OKOK) in Seattle, before they moved the gallery to LA. Happy Accidents was a site that was run by a close friend and curator, Nick Brown. A short lived art blog focused on a pretty ambitious early-aughts Vancouver art scene. He lived in Toronto for a few years after that and was in charge of the Red Bull gallery, which was a contemporary art gallery in the foyer of the Red Bull headquarters. It was one of those projects where people initially rolled their eyes and expected it to be street art, or the standard energy drink illustration shit, but the space was amazing and he ended up showing some great contemporary art, and had Red Bull put a ton of money behind each show, so he changed a bunch of stuff for the better here. Jessica Eaton, Jen Sciarrino, Jon Sasaki, Ron Tran, Abbas Akhavan, Cedric Bomford all showed there, it was a good spot.
ANYWAYS, Lukas and I were friends with Nick (he slept on our couch 5 nights a week) and since I was on the internet a lot (aka broke and bored), it was a time when I was in touch with a lot of people online, a lot of guys from San Francisco and New York, and sites like Fecal Face took an interest in what Lukas and I we were doing and sort of pushed it a little bit. But now we all live in different cities, Lukas has been in Brooklyn for a long time, Nick in New Haven, and we still work together occasionally, just in different capacities. It’s a slow burn.
So where does that transition come in, I mean I got to know your work through the more illustrative stuff and looking at it now, it has evolved, how do you see you guys coming together for a show? Do you think you would go back to that sort of style?
Well, yeah, the focus has been shifting away from an illustrative style pretty naturally over the past 8 years. We’re both still on the same page, still very active, and still hang when we’re in the same city. We’ve just been finding areas where the work can complement each other, and looking for opportunities where the work can be paired appropriately. He’s a bit more sculptural, I’m a bit more wall based, but there’s lots of grey area for us to fuck around in.
I know you are working in a lot of different mediums, like illustration and stuff, and even sculpture, but you haven’t really shown sculpture…
Yeah I basically just make stuff, I have zero worries about jumping in and making anything, but to show it in a gallery setting… different story. There is obviously a deep history to sculpture, so I want to be particular of how and where I do present it in an art context, I want to respect that history and craft and not just jump in too naively. And at the same time, a lot of stuff I do is maybe a bit sculptural but still wall work for the most part, and for wall work I don’t have the same hesitations as I do in dealing with floor sculpture, but if it’s floor based and you are walking around it, then there’s this other aspect to it and it’s a whole other thing.
Illustration was something I grew up doing but sorta let it slide over time. I still dig it, but over time I realized that I wasn’t interested in the constraints and baggage associated with it. I started doing a lot of other, more abstract physical stuff, like making these folded photocopied pieces of paper, and keeping them in my pocket, sleeping with them, having them around the house and the studio kicking around and having my sweat and oils seeped into it. And then once they were unfolded and placed on the gallery wall, they had the feeling of what I had been trying to get across with drawings or illustrations. The process of making a drawing, wasn’t just pencil and paper or a brush and a canvas anymore but it was achieving the same effect. So that opened up a lot of things for me. Since then I’ve been constantly exploring new ways of making things, sometimes it’s the process first, the idea behind the process and gesture and seeing if it actually works, or if it translates the idea. And a lot of times it doesn’t work, like, that was a cool idea but it doesn’t actually work. Those failures have been super helpful, something interesting usually comes out of it.
I saw a video interview of you where you were kicking one of your pieces to the side.
Yeah weirdly enough I stapled that canvas outside a friends cabin for a good part of the year after that, then I showed it at a solo show in New York last year. It was a piece that didn’t really work initially, but I put it outside, then retouched it a bit and it suddenly it was working. I do that a lot, sometimes you just have to have a little patience. Or maybe its just fresh eyes or something… I like things that have been really worked in.
Yeah like the phrase “the devil is in the details” came to mind when I was looking at your work, sometimes there is something deceivingly simple but I know through your process that you labored your ass over this.
Some things are simple, or they are the ephemera of a more complicated thing. When I make a simple thing, the work is in there somewhere, it might be a tiny little thing that happened over the course of the period that I was working, sometimes a castoff or something else ends up representing that effort in a more effective way or visually compelling way over the thing you are lingering on. I have a series of boards that I use when I work and it’s just a paper stapled to plywood that’s underneath everything I work on and it has collected so many marks and leaks and stains… that it is much more interesting to me right now than the work I plan out more thoroughly.
In the end it’s paying a lot of attention to editing and not being too precious. Sometimes people just want to put in everything and can’t separate from the work or the experience of making the work. They are attached to it, they want to show everyone all their efforts and not have it look like it just took a minute. But maybe out of all those pieces just one of them needs to be in the front. Simplify that shit.
A lot of artists envy the freedom that you put into theses works, some of them being dragged over land and destroyed but almost in a loving way.
Ha, I look at it more like punishment than freedom! Yeah I mean I don’t throw things around that easily either. A while back I came across Wabi Sabi, you know that Japanese idea of embracing transience and imperfection? Just the idea of the age and the experience and the life that these objects have is valuable. The more life they have the more important and valuable they are. If they have been dented up and nicked and paint is chipped, that’s desirable in Wabi Sabi. I saw that and I thought it was so lined up with how I see things, it totally distilled these vagues thoughts I had about what I was making. It’s something that has been done for centuries and it’s how I think about things too. I like everything around me to be worn, including art . I like it when a drawing has been beat up and kicked around. I like the holes in the corners after they have been displayed multiple times, the stained areas where something has been water damaged, I think that’s interesting.
With that in mind I was looking at your work and obviously with collectors buying your pieces, do you care or does it matter to you about light destroying some of your dark works or how do you archive them?
I really don’t care about that, but some galleries care and we take some precautions against it, but I’m pretty up front about how precious some of the work is. At the end of the day how long are we really here for? You really gonna be bummed about paper ageing a bit when you’re in the ground? Relax.
TeenAnger NYE, 2014.
Can you briefly say there is something you are working on now, or coming up for the horizon for you?
I just got back from Rio de Janeiro, I was down there for ArtRio… cool city, beautiful and sketchy. I have a solo show coming up in February at Clint Roenisch Gallery in Toronto in his big new space. So mostly working towards that right now and trying to sort out some details for a few unconfirmed shows in the near future.