Van Der Plas Gallery Offers a Topsy-Turvy Tour of Painter Jason McLean’s Mid-Life Mind

A new solo show takes viewers on a wild ride inside the divided and excited life of the artist with work from two decades of his career.

A piece of abstract art in hues of blue, green and yellow
Jason McLean, Bonus Direction, 2024, Acrylic ink and acrylic paint on paper, 22” x 30”. Courtesy the gallery and artist

As I carefully walk around the bustling Van Der Plas Gallery and review the writhing, whimsical, topsy-turvy paintings of Jason McLean at the opening of his new exhibition, “I’m as Normal as Blueberry Pie,” I can’t help but think that the artist recently told me he was diagnosed with schizophrenia three decades ago. This brain disorder is a difficult and disorienting mental and spiritual place in which to reside, often filled with high fantasy and abject terror in equal measure. I know this because I have a close relative who suffers from the same mental health challenge—and I’ve stared right into the face of it during the darkest of hours.

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After years of consistent treatment, medication management and some lifestyle changes, McLean’s doctors say he no longer exhibits the classic cognitive and psychotic symptoms found in patients with the illness. Now, thriving in an extraordinarily prolific and creative period of his mid career, McClean is in, well, a better place. His work makes it apparent, however, that he isn’t completely out of the brain-battling and stress-inducing thicket—but at least he’s tackling issues driven by the many collisions of accelerated urban life that can make any of us feel crazy by mythologizing and mapping out its meaty meta-adjacent innards for all to see.

The work in this comprehensive solo show, which goes back twenty years until the present day, is a representation of McLean’s many-layered wacky-but-weighty worlds and living realities. It’s reminiscent of 16th-century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s darkened wild piles of human folly and failings but populated by Dr. Seuss’s out-there, slap-happy, colorful cartoon protagonists. I also feel the force of Basquiat’s brutal barbarism, smell a whiff of Philip Guston’s brilliant neo-expressionist figurative funk and see a wee bit of Richard Pettibone’s hip ink vignettes in the works on view. McLean’s personal and pervasive touch upon his art, however, is his alone. It is a kindly, loving, guileless imprint composed of networked vessels, veins, guts and gloryholes-of-the-mind handled with deft zine-scene sketch artistry and a kid’s fervent appreciation of the media—mostly brightly hued acrylic inks—that shape up into mature but playful art featuring characters and journeys we care about that merit a sincere and serious gander.

A red door painted with various motifs
Jason McLean, Exit Stage Left (Detail), 2019, Acrylic pen and paint on found door, 80” x 30” x 1.5”. Courtesy the gallery and artist

Some of my favorites in the exhibition are McLean’s paintings on old interior and solid hardwood entry doors—time-honored symbols of renewal, passage and metamorphosis. These include Exit Stage Left, covered in bright fire engine red paint, the words “Good Luck” writ large on the top rail of the door in a corpulent, sinewy pink, its “G” covered in slate gray, which looks at once like a sick, coughing, furry animal and—somehow—a smiling, cruising snail wearing sunglasses. Images of fractured bones and teeth, some gray and others white, convey McLean’s loose report on what feels like a contrast of both bright and gloomy states of personal physical health. The words “Tides Turn” coupled with sailboat imagery suggest—like the doors—additional transformations, as well as movement forward. Another fleshy object further down the panel, which looks like a horseshoe with its branches pointed north, features thumbs-up nails on both of its tips and the words “hand(s) fear”—instead of “hands-free”—on the foot section of the shoe. It seems that McLean’s own hands, vital for the creation of his work as much as for living his life as normally as possible, are in question here. During a recent interview with the artist, I glimpsed at, and we discussed, the regular tremor of his fingers—likely the side-effect of psychiatric medication—a betrayal of his craft and his well-being, which the piece may refer to.

A smaller work, Everything Will Be Alright, was created over a discarded child’s painting. It focuses on the mental health and perceptual well-being of the artist. With loose floral stems, cavorting broad dots and what looks like fluid rivers of neural pathways colored in cool cerulean blue, bright scarlet and calming emerald greens, the painting’s stamped title hangs right in the sight of a small camouflaged face on the central figure’s oversized noggin. Several sets of eyeballs, cells, sores and other circular stations along numerous overlapping brain and body networks seem to twinkle and blink like staccato stop-and-go traffic lights. Two anonymous, ghostly, red figures stand patiently off to the sides, one reaching out with a pointed limb—directly through the painting’s central character—to the other figure. Are they family or friends—there for support? Or maybe they’re perceived foes—often found in the foreground of schizophrenic hallucinations. In either event, the painting is full of life. Tiny smiles, leafy buds and seemingly animated little Disney-like arm-in-arm figures flutter about like spring has sprung, suggesting to us that the show must go on, even if we don’t have all the dance moves down or the motivation to join in the choral refrain. The painting seems to say that everything will be alright—if we simply keep moving through this ride called life.

A piece of abstract art in hues of blue and black
Jason McLean, Court Street Stroll, 2023, Acrylic ink and acrylic paint on paper, 22” x 30”. Courtesy the gallery and artist

You know those full-color, scenic, three-dimensional caricature maps of small towns and big cities that highlight major landmarks and tourist traps? McLean has transformed the kitschy format to create a shorthand record of timely local events and neighborhood sites, as well as his day-in and day-out personal mind trips and tribulations. There are several such works by the artist on view in the Van Der Plas exhibition, such as Court Street Stroll and Giant Diary. One of my favorites, Candy Eyes, acrylic ink on paper, is a gorgeous example composed in all primary color patches joined by wavy gridwork, two-way New York City street depictions and numerous heavy black outlines, like a rubbery Mondrian painting saddled with spooky harlequins, doggy faces and Looney Tunes outcasts. Hopeful phrases like “Dream Come True,” “Game On,” “Forward” and “Good Time” are placed around a prominent “Candy” store sign, which makes viewing the piece feel like a mantra-filled, sugar-fueled win of the classic confection-dripping board game Candyland but on a more fundamental happy-to-be-alive level—a recurrent theme in McLean’s work and life.

The show presents several unexpected additional works of interest. These include small hand-painted baseball card pieces like Who’s on First and Hit and Run, which feature famous New York Yankees covered in tree branches and flower blooms, breaking them free from glossy photo-op batting form. Another cool piece is the hand-painted boomerang, Come Back, We Miss You, which is ostensibly about longing and inevitable returns to loved ones. There was even a painting on a small red automobile parked outside at the show opening, promoting The Idiot’s Hour performance troupe and a painting on a garden watering can, Loss, Gain and In Between, that appropriately seems to deal in birth, growth and death.

A piece of abstract art in hues of blue, green and red
Jason McLean, Everything Will Be Alright, 2024, Acrylic on canvas, 20” x 16”. Courtesy the gallery and artist

I must say that after meeting the ebullient, chatty and utterly sincere McLean, I have grown even fonder of the works in “I’m as Normal as Blueberry Pie” since initially seeing them—but they certainly stand tall on their very first viewing. I have come to realize that McLean’s art, while introspective and self-aware, never navel-gazes nor asks for a pity party. Instead, the work offers a psychedelic voyage just around the corner, inviting us to tag along with the artist on a day of fun and excitement, as well as a night of fear and defeat. As you walk through the twists and turns that outline McLean’s mind and life through his work, he seems to make playing with fantasy—the limitless imagination—an important study and exercise of checking in with reality. Of course, his work isn’t a test, but he certainly earns an A for his wondrous and wild aesthetic effort.

Jason McLean: I’m as Normal as Blueberry Pie” is on view at Van Der Plas Gallery through July 14.

A piece of abstract art in hues of primary yellow, blue and red
Jason McLean, Candy Eyes, 2024, Acrylic ink on paper, 71.5 “ x 44.5”. Courtesy the gallery and artist

Van Der Plas Gallery Offers a Topsy-Turvy Tour of Painter Jason McLean’s Mid-Life Mind