Patrick McDonnell brings pandemic abstract paintings to comic book art

Patrick McDonnell is best known as the creator of pooches, a long-running, light-hearted daily comic starring Earl the dog and Mooch the cat. But occasionally since college, McDonnell has also done abstract paintings on the side, though he mostly kept the work to himself.

Then in 2016, McDonnell presents his paintings to two friends: Nancy and Sluggo, characters from the comic strip Nancy, originally written and drawn by Ernie Bushmiller (and these days by Olivia Jaimes). McDonnell added both figures directly to his canvases, usually depicting them from behind or in profile, where they became surrogate viewers of his paintings.

“Nancy and Sluggo have a surreal side to them, which is really nice. A lot of the jokes about Nancy and Sluggo are that they see weird things,” McDonnell recently said over the phone. [Bushmiller’s] work very closely and, boy, he draws the back of their heads looking at a lot of things. … So they have become good relays for my public.

Eventually, Jenny Robb, curator at Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, visited McDonnell at his New Jersey studio in hopes of introducing his work to viewers other than Nancy and Sluggo. McDonnell initially thought the museum might exhibit a few of his paintings on a large scale, but Robb launched a collaboration with OSU’s Urban Arts Space, a downtown gallery with a large wall space for an exhibition featuring dozens of his works. The show was supposed to debut last year, but COVID delayed the show for a year — a postponement McDonnell is now grateful for.

“When I first talked to Jenny Robb about doing the show, most of my paintings were just Nancy and Sluggo. The idea for the whole show was going to be that you would go to the museum and visit to Nancy and Sluggo. … It becomes like an afternoon at the gallery with your friends,” said McDonnell, who during the pandemic delay of more than a year began playing around with different characters, themes and styles in his work. “I feel like the paintings just kept evolving and getting better.”

Now Nancy and Sluggo are joined by other classic comic book characters: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Jack Kirby’s Captain America and mustachioed protagonist Milt Gross. nice baby bands. Over time, McDonnell realized that these new paintings reflected “the madness of the times we live in – the emotional feeling of being out of control and that constant sense of dread amidst the absurdity of what is happening. going on,” he said.

In all, McDonnell created 52 pieces that combine abstract expressionism with comic book characters for “Side Effects: Paintings by Patrick McDonnell 2016-2021”, publicly visible for the first time at Urban Arts Space until October 3, when McDonnell arrives for a guided tour at 2 p.m., followed by a closing reception from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., in conjunction with Columbus Comic Crossroads. (A selection from McDonnell’s pooches drawings are also currently on display at the Billy as part of the museum’s exhibition “The Dog Show: Two Centuries of Canine Cartoons” exhibition until the end of October.)

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At first, the change in tone came from the gaze of Nancy and Sluggo, who began gazing at the recurring images of McDonnell’s mushroom clouds, similar to those that appear in the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. “Then I started adding skulls, which is funny because I do a very sweet comic, pooches, and I don’t usually draw things like that. But it seemed right for these paintings,” he said. “I loved the nonchalance of Nancy and Sluggo, because they’ve seen it all, and that’s kind of how we coped and handled things. Part of you can’t really think about it. He just look at it and say, ‘OK, another day.’ »

Often McDonnell would paint over his work multiple times until he felt comfortable, and silhouettes from previous attempts sometimes appear behind the paintings, interacting with the images of the final version. In “A Maddening Thing”, Dick Tracy holds a skull in his left hand while gazing skyward against an empty background of negative space, but in the upper left corner McDonnell leaves a yellowed newspaper partially uncovered by white paint, revealing the title of a decades-old Dick Tracy comic strip.

"A maddening thing" (acrylic latex paint, ink, pencil and collage on canvas, 48" x48" × 1 3/8") by Patrick McDonnell

“Tales of Suspense” makes similar use of white paint, with McDonnell depicting a battle between Captain America and Iron Man, but with all the central action obscured by the white brushstrokes, above which McDonnell added a single pink flower.

Rather than paying homage to his comic book heroes only in paintings, McDonnell also included an “Influences & Inspirations” room, showcasing the work of eight cartoonists who helped inspire his paintings, including Bushmiller, Kirby, Gould, Frederick Opper, George Herriman and others. “The Billy Ireland Comics Library and Museum has such a large collection, so there is an original by Chester Gould, Krazy Kat rip sheets, Jack Kirby originals…I would go to that show just to see that,” McDonnell said.

"Rescue at sea" (acrylic latex paint, ink, oil stick and pencil on canvas, 48" ×60" × 1 3/8") by Patrick McDonnell

Towards the end of “Side Effects”, the paintings become more hopeful, with brighter colors and more signs of life: birds, flowers, sunshine. It’s no coincidence that McDonnell completed these plays in 2021 as the pandemic seemed to be subsiding and vaccines were becoming readily available. In “The Tin Man”, the Wizard of Oz the character gazes lovingly at a drawing of a heart pumping blood, and in another painting, Little Orphan Annie smiles at a pencil drawing of the sun.

"The Tin Man" (acrylic latex paint, ink and oil stick on canvas, 48" x48" × 1 3/8") by Patrick McDonnell

“I started to think maybe there was some hope,” McDonnell said. “It was after getting the second [vaccine] cut. I also feel like it was the second shot of the art. … I haven’t painted so much [recently]but I’m really curious to see if I’m still as optimistic as when I did this.

In the final track of “Side Effects”, Nancy and Sluggo observe a mural reminiscent of Jackson Pollock full of chaotic lines, drips, splatters and symbols, with red and pink flowers in the corners. And while the two figures have remained mostly silent throughout the exhibit, McDonnell gives them a word bubble in this final painting: “Yes, I like visiting art galleries.”

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