Side Effects | an interview with Patrick McDonnell

August 16, 2021

Side Effects | an interview with Patrick McDonnell

painting of a group of people spinning in a wheel, in a cartoon style

Patrick McDonnell is most well-known for his famous comic strip titled MUTTS, which he has been creating since 1994, and for his award-winning children’s books. Less known, though, is that McDonnell has been creating his own abstract paintings in his free time since college. Urban Arts Space is now lucky enough to be hosting an exhibition of over 50 of these paintings that McDonnell created in his free time from 2016-2021. 

UAS Interns, Emma Hassel and Audrey Neyer talked with Patrick about this exhibition, Side Effects: Paintings by Patrick McDonnell 2016-2021, currently on view at Urban Arts Space:  

Emma Hassel: Can you start by telling us a brief summary of your upcoming exhibition?

Patrick McDonnell: Well, it's the first exhibition of the crazy, turbulent paintings I created during the crazy turbulent years of 2016 through 2021. I enjoy drawing MUTTS, but for years I’ve been doing large abstract paintings whenever I had the time. Eventually I thought it might be interesting to add some comic characters. It started out with the addition of Nancy and Sluggo, but then I began using other characters to comment on the unsettling emotions I was going through in such unprecedented times. The art piled up and evolved into a body of work. There are over 100 paintings in total, and The Ohio State University and the Urban Art Space is graciously showing 54 of them in this exhibition.

It was initiated when Jenny Robb, curator at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, saw my work. I thought it might be nice if the Billy Ireland Museum had one of my paintings in their collection or in a future exhibition. It was Jenny’s idea that the Urban Arts Space might be a better place to show them. So, the following year I was in Ohio for CXC and when Jenny showed me the Urban Arts Space gallery, it was so big, so beautiful, I was intimidated. It's the size of a floor in the Whitney Museum! And at that point, I didn't think I would have enough paintings to fill the entire space. It’s two years later now and, especially with the lockdown, I’ve had the opportunity to paint a whole lot more. This body of work represents a visual documentary of the roller coaster we’ve all experienced over the last four years. And I’m really looking forward to seeing these paintings all together in one gallery space.

Audrey Neyer: It is truly impressive to see them all together. As you mentioned you've been an artist, for 40 years mostly making comic strips for MUTTS while making personal paintings in the meantime. Within your artists’ introduction that you provided UAS, you stated that having this unexpected outlet was “my second shot”, what made you want to present the work you made during this “second shot” to the world?

Patrick McDonnell: Well, by “second shot” I meant it’s like the COVID vaccine. A second shot could free you up and make you feel as if life is livable again. During the COVID lockdown, just doing the paintings is what made my life livable. It was a way for me to cope. Hopefully the paintings are relatable since we were all going through the same things together. The paintings have a feeling of the fears during that time, but are centered on all the craziness. For me, it was a healing experience to just work in my painting studio and enjoy the process. I didn’t create the art thinking, “Oh I’m going to make a statement about this, or I’m going to make a statement about that.” The abstract parts were just me loving to paint. Adding the characters was more intuitive. I didn’t do sketches of the paintings first. I have no idea how they're going to end up. I just keep on adding and subtracting. There's probably about four or five paintings underneath each of them as they evolved over time. After each was completed, I would look at it and try to figure out, “what is that about?”. Now, looking over the entire show, I realize it really was about just living during these times.

Audrey Neyer: Yeah, I definitely think that, especially since a lot of people have found artwork to be, or art of any type, to be kind of therapeutic during the pandemic. I think that was a really good answer.

Patrick McDonnell: I’m guessing a lot of artists had a lot of time to work things out. There's a good chance there might be a big art renaissance explosion soon.

Emma Hassel: Throughout this exhibition, you incorporate classic comic strip characters throughout your abstract works. Within your artist introduction statement, you discuss these characters and the role they play within the works. You specifically state that, “In 2016, it was time for someone else to see them. So, I added Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy and Sluggo onto my canvases as surrogate viewers.” What sparked this inspiration to add these “surrogate viewers” to your abstract works?

Patrick McDonnell: Ever since college I’ve been doing large abstract paintings. When you create a comic strip, especially a daily comic strip, it’s inherently limiting in size and format – the same art materials all the time with the same characters. There's some monotony to it but there's a Zen to it, too. The abstract paintings are more of a release, more fun. My MUTTS dailies are very small, I draw very small, but my paintings are really big and sloppy.

I had all these paintings piling up, and I realized that the only people who saw them were myself, my dog, my wife, and occasionally a friend who would come over. I thought I might eventually have a show but wasn't really thinking about finding a gallery at the time. So, it was just a funny idea that maybe I could add some people to the paintings, observing the art. At the time, I was rereading Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, a great, unintentionally surreal strip. Bushmiller regularly drew his characters from behind so you would be seeing the back of their heads. Part of the Nancy joke is she's always witnessing strange things, so I thought Nancy and Sluggo would be great characters to add. I just had to paint the back of their heads, looking at my art. So, to my existing paintings, I started adding Nancy and Sluggo and it became kind of an addiction. I really love abstract paintings and painters, but I love all the comic artists, too, so it's a nice combination of the two loves I have in the art world. After a while I got bored with Nancy and Sluggo and thought it might be fun to add other characters, in particular, Milt Gross’s characters. His drawings are really loose, and they fit in well with abstract paintings because they're about as free as the abstractionist works. His characters seem to be right at home in that world. So that's how it expanded.

Emma Hassel: I think it's really, really great to that we have some of the actual comic strips in the gallery to along with your art, so we can see your inspiration and exactly where it came from.

Patrick McDonnell: Yeah, those cartoonists are all heroes to me, and I think it’s fun to show where the inspirations came from. In this exhibition there are many wonderful original artworks by George Herriman, Jack Kirby, Chester Gould and other greats, all provided by the Billy Ireland Library and Cartoon Museum. Personally, I would go to the Urban Arts Space just to see that part of the show.

Audrey Neyer: These works were made during the many tumultuous years of 2016-2021, reflecting upon the feelings of isolation, hope, and dread we have all experienced in these past 5 years. Within your artist influences statement, you discuss the character Nize Baby’s dad: Morris Feitlebaum by Milt Gross, who is featured in many of your works, and how he is an “ideal representative for our times.” Can you explain how this character is a representative of our times?

Patrick McDonnell: Nize Baby is centered on the baby’s dad, all his trials and tribulations. Morris would regularly be hit on the head with a hammer or fall out a window or be thrown into a lake. In its day, it was just a slapstick strip where most of the time this poor guy was getting beaten and pummeled. I felt like he was us, watching the news and being bombarded with something new every day. He is a good representative for these times, and the nice thing is that he persevered. At the end of each strip, he made it through the day just like we were. Milt Gross drew in a comically abstract way. All those crazy stars above him when he was hit on the head, and those little swirls and tornado clouds of his confusion, felt like perfect symbols for the years we were going through. I had a little tornado cloud of confusion over my head and, unfortunately, it’s yet to go away completely.

Audrey Neyer: Especially the part you mentioned about sometimes the way he was being hit was funny. Being able to find humor in hard times, I think that represents that pretty well.

Patrick McDonnell: Both art and humor are really helpful in healing, they get us through life and are definitely needed today. At the end of the Side Effects exhibit, there is a painting of the Tin Man trying to find heart and another of Little Orphan Annie searching for hope. The exhibition has a happy ending I guess, but with a question mark.

Audrey Neyer: There was like either two or three canvases that had this man holding a skull, when did you make those?

Patrick McDonnell: Those were done at different times, but I’m sure one of them was created during 2020. That man is Dick Tracy, the comic strip character. There’s a continuing storyline in the Dick Tracy comic strip where he is abandoned on a desert island and didn't think he would survive. He then found the bones of someone else who hadn’t. There are a couple of dailies where Dick Tracy is holding the skull pondering life, I thought that was a perfect image for these times.

Audrey Neyer: I was looking at that one and I, I really like that, but it's very, you know, representative of our times.

Emma Hassel: I love how you can see underneath all the layers on some of them, people can see you painted over them on some points

Emma Hassel: In using classic comic strip characters in your works, that many have known since childhood, what role does nostalgia play in your work?

Patrick McDonnell: Nostalgia does have a role, because we remember beloved comic strip characters from our childhood. Comic characters in general are innocent and people can relate to them on a basic, gut level. They’re almost a part of our family. Because of that you can make larger statements with them and people are more open to listening. In my comic strip MUTTS, I do a lot of important animal rights issues, but I can get away with it because it's like a family member at the breakfast table talking about something that matters. Comic characters bring that element to my paintings. It's nostalgia, but most of the characters I chose are from before my time which is ironic. Nize Baby by Milt Gross was from the 30s and Krazy Kat is from 1911 to 1944. They're not part of my childhood memories, but we still instinctually know them by their being part of our collective history. In that way, they can become good spokespeople for tough topics

Audrey Neyer: Yeah, because I guess, if you use real people who symbols for a lot of deeper issues are, then it constantly ties that baggage to it.

Audrey Neyer: After spending the past 5 years with the characters in your work are there any that you specifically relate to?

Patrick McDonnell: Maybe not the characters but the artists. By doing these paintings I have more respect and more awe for all the artists that inspired me. When you copy Bushmiller’s characters, you realize that, for how simple they look, they actually are quite complicated. Every line is right where it should be; it really is inspiring. Especially with faces. That’s the magic of cartooning – how alive these little characters are and how much emotion they tell. But even with the simplest [drawing], it can be two dots and a little squiggle for a nose, but it's all in exact place to convey a specific emotion. So, I was more impressed with how cartoonists are able to design these characters and how much life they have.

Also, how abstract they are too. I really love painting for paint’s sake, and colors and brush strokes. Cartoon characters can have that same feel, a loose brush stroke that becomes a face, at the same time it’s still pretty much an expressive, loose brush stroke. Those two worlds are important to me, very different, but also very similar. So, I mostly relate to the cartoonists and, obviously, all the abstract artists, like Cy Twombly and Willem de Kooning, whom I love. For me it’s how much fun it is to play with paint. Playing with paint and playing with characters and making something new out of it.

Side Effects Paintings by Patrick McDonnell 2016-2021 will be on view at Urban Arts Space August 10 - October 3, 2021.

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