Offbeat satire that finds the bizarre in the banal


Special To The Japan Times

Sometimes the pen really is mightier than the sword — not only when it is deployed to capture in words the loftiest philosophical ruminations, but also when, through pictures, it causes heroes to tremble and fall. For skilled satirists, trenchant humor is a potent tool.

The Tokyo-based, Scottish artist Jack McLean is a master of a certain kind of super-dry satire, whose mischievousness is on view at The Container, a small, alternative-space gallery in the capital’s Nakameguro district. In just a few years, this replica of a metal shipping container, installed inside a hip haircutting salon, has become a much-watched venue for conceptual and other forms of contemporary art.

McLean’s exhibition, titled “It’s a Long Story, in Full Colour, Without a Happy Ending,” includes a large drawing in oil-ink pen and watercolor on canvas, which fills the gallery’s far wall, and two long, horizontal drawings made with the same materials, which radiate out from it on either side like cartoon friezes. Also on view is a large, papier-mache airplane, a prop from one of McLean’s performance art events.

McLean, who studied at the Glasgow School of Art, first visited Japan in the 1990s, when he was 30 years old. He says, “I’ve always been interested in cliches and stereotypes, in looking for the unusual in what is most familiar.”

The artist, who also works as a school teacher, often appears in performance art works as a sad-looking clown, who seems to both revel in and abhor the tedium of blowing up long, pink balloons. The characters and situations in his drawings of overlapping scenes recall those in the activity-packed panoramas of the 16th-century, Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Both artists’ works are very ordinary and yet decidedly bizarre.

In McLean’s drawings, salarymen stumble around with cardboard boxes on their heads; a dinosaur tries to cross a footbridge with a marching band, then dismembers the annoying humans; booze-guzzling toddlers play on a shark-surrounded raft; a monkey finds itself nailed to a cross; and a nasty kid with a slingshot takes aim at a weary Jesus Christ. In McLean’s pictures, children behave like the vain or confused adults they will someday become, and grown-ups revert to the irritating, childish routines they should have abandoned long ago. His drawings “are full of characters I have seen throughout my life,” the artist says. They offer a kind of satire that is offbeat, to be sure — and maybe also a warning to the unassuming to stay out of the way of an artist armed with McLean’s wry wit and take-no-prisoners search for subjects.

“Jack McLean: It’s a Long Story, in Full Colour, Without a Happy Ending” at The Container runs till Feb. 15; open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (Sat., Sun. 10 a.m.-8 p.m.). Free admission. Closed Tue.