Níall McClelland

Níall McClelland’s last solo exhibition at Clint Roenisch Gallery, “Hot Takes, No Sax,” was five years ago. In it he presented an ambitious installation of road cases, often used by touring punk bands, covered in thousands of graphic and arresting vinyl stickers broadcasting anarchic maxims, auto racing motifs and nihilistic slogans. Paired with a series of equally punchy acrylic silkscreens on the wall that integrated enamel ink stains, photo emulsion and more vinyl stickers stuck on aluminum frames, the exhibition declared McClelland once again the OG of Punk imagery woven into disparate modes of materialist languages.

“The Juice,” five years later, is an unexpected shift for the artist. McClelland is no stranger to the language of painting, but in “The Juice” he has dedicated his full attention to painting itself, and his commitment to the material is unmistakable. With the dramatically dimmed lights set at the gallery, paired with his intense colour palette of dioxazine purple, alizarin crimson, burnt umber and hues of phthalo blue matched with the vibrant saturation of cadmium yellows and oranges, I was surrounded by his paintings all at once, each sized the same as the other, scaled just a bit larger than life. I had entered the gallery as if seconds before the coda, engulfed in a charged tension that could be eased only if a fight broke out. This was not unintentional— the title of the exhibition alludes to the legendary line “Well ya know, for me, the action is the juice,” by Tom Sizemore in Michael Mann’s emblematic Heat, 1995, a film master of the edge.

Níall McClelland, installation view, “The Juice,” 2023, Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto. Photo: LF Documentation. Courtesy Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto.

Heat is full of violence, gangsters and money—everything I love and expect from a film featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. “The Juice” is full of vulnerability, drive and conviction—everything I love and expect from McClelland’s practice.

What convinced me most of McClelland’s vulnerability was that I knew each painting demanded real curiosity from the artist, requiring him to manipulate his marks differently on every surface, following where the material would take him. With a distinctive material choice of oil paint and sand on burlap stretched on canvas, each painting takes a determined shot at understanding abstraction better in his own language. In The Burden McClelland treats his composition from edge to edge, prioritizing the colour field with vast stains of reds and purples. In Bad Biz he splits his surface into two divisive areas with a defining black down the middle, carefully considering how each would be full of more black until the composition reached an equilibrium in its entirety. The magnum opus is Repression Cypher, a fearless and electrifying red monochrome. The painting stands out in the exhibition but knows that it belongs to the family. McClelland doesn’t make singles; he makes albums.

The film Heat also depicts how the characters’ personal lives are affected by all the action. In “The Juice” McClelland doesn’t prescribe to us his life story as subject matter but opens up a space that achieves something better. As a critical painter adjacent to McClelland, I am more interested in why an artist is determined to make something and what is at stake for them to achieve it. The only cards McClelland lays on the table for us in “The Juice” reveal the nature of his relationship to painting, and for me these cards are enough. Up until the exhibition opening, McClelland spent months at a time working in the Bruce Peninsula, isolated and relentlessly refining the paintings for the show, brush in hand, guard down, confronting the empty canvas head-on. The calibre of viscerality he has achieved in his painting I know occurs only when an artist confronts the truth of his life experiences fearlessly, then drives his expression of that with absolute sincerity.

Níall McClelland, Repression Cypher, 2023, oil and sand on burlap over canvas, 198.12 × 152.4 centimetres. Photo: LF Documentation. Courtesy Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto.

Like in all the relationships I regard highly in life, trust, loyalty and respect are built mutually over time. The gift of experiencing McClelland’s paintings is not given but earned. The longer I spent at the gallery, the more I became willing to match his vulnerability. Fists unclenched, guard down, confronting his surfaces head-on, I could understand the paintings better. There is no greater gift than an artist who can persuade me to meet his faith in the work eye to eye where trust and respect for each other are returned.

I know a good painting when I see one, but more importantly, I know what it takes to make a painting good. Undertaking this material commitment couldn’t have been easy, but like all my favourite artists— Alex Katz and David Salle included— McClelland doubled down. “The Juice” captures a rare authenticity and tenacity that you learn only from being in the heat of pushing your limits every day, and in “The Juice” McClelland says everything with his chest. He sets the bar high for painters in Toronto, and with a real punk ethos driving his fearless devotion to painting, he serves us this reminder for excellence: if you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. ❚

“The Juice” was exhibited at Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto, from October 27, 2023, to December 23, 2023.

Yan Wen Chang is a painter in Canada.

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