Art Review: Side Effects – Paintings by Patrick McDonnell 2016-2021

Patrick McDonnell has long established himself as one of the finest cartoonists and illustrators working today. In addition to his award-winning comic MuttsMcDonnell’s illustrations have been featured in The New York Times, Parent reviewand Time magazine. He is the author and has published numerous children’s books (he won a Caldecott Honorary Award in 2012 for Me… Jane), won a number of National Cartoonists Society awards and was often touted as Charles Schulz’s heir apparent.

What has been less well established (and what Side Effects: Paintings by Patrick McDonnell 2016-2021 gifts galore) is McDonnell’s prowess as a painter. Through a selection of more than 50 paintings, Side effects allows McDonnell to flex his pictorial muscles and show that his creativity and humor extend far beyond the printed page.

In a statement accompanying the exhibition, McDonnell describes his appreciation for the abstract expressionists Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Cy Twombly. Unsurprisingly, the works themselves undermine this precise territory; using all the broad strokes, heavy splatters and bold color fields of these mid-century masters. With a skill that makes everything seem perfectly natural, McDonnell then populates these rich abstractions with a veritable “who’s who” of 20th-century cartoon characters. In doing so, he establishes fascinating links between the spontaneous gestural marks of abstract painting and the gestural economy of the draughtsman’s line.

While McDonnell’s bona fide as a student of cartoons is unquestionable, I would say here that his knowledge of 20th century painting is at least as solid. We don’t throw in the kind of skull rendered in Lemonade or the sun style shown in Leaping lizards without knowing Basquiat. In the same way, Panels is unlikely to be fully trained by an artist unfamiliar with the work of Robert Motherwell Elegies to the Spanish Republic series. As the references abound. Nods to neo-expressionism, pop art, cubism and color field paintings are plentiful. The venerable Ben Day points are even appearing.

Patrick McDonnell | Lemonade | 2019 | Acrylic latex paint and ink on canvas

All of this reaches the “maximum reference” in the form of a large red canvas titled And no one will survive. Dramatically lit and hung with the kind of solitary reverence normally given to Mark Rothko’s hyper dark works, there’s even a bench where viewers might have plenty of time to contemplate the meaning of it all! And no one will survive features a mash-up of 1960s high and low culture that quietly introduces Marvel Comics drama into the stark image planes favored by Mark Rothko and Clifford Still.

Which doesn’t mean Side effects is a purely academic exercise. Nor is it a simple lesson in the history of art (or comics). Which makes Side effects so successful is the seriousness McDonnell brings to the job. He clearly loves cartoon rendering work. He also clearly enjoys applying paint to a canvas, pushing it, scratching it, just seeing what it does. It is this sense of exploration and love of process that resonates in this collection of paintings. The artist’s approach invites the viewer to become part of the work. Like Nancy and Sluggo (who appear frequently in McDonnell’s paintings), we are both observers and participants.

Patrick McDonnell | And no one will survive | 2017 | Acrylic and oil latex paint on canvas

The works included in Side effects were created at a particularly difficult time. This unease and uncertainty shines through in many of the paintings on display, but so does the hope. Flowers bloom in unexpected places. Those lost at sea are rescued. The sun shines on Annie and Sandy.

McDonnell shares that “these paintings are about coping and persevering, how everything is connected, and how art (and humor) heals.” If that’s the side effect McDonnell was hoping for, we’ll take whatever we can.

Side Effects: Paintings by Patrick McDonnell 2016-2021 is on view through October 3 at The Ohio State University Urban Arts Space, 50 W. Town St., Suite 130. Side effects is co-sponsored by the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. Click here for more information.

All photos of Jeff Regensburger’s works

Patrick McDonnell | Leaping Lizards | 2021 | Acrylic latex paint, ink, oil stick, pencil, watercolor and collage on canvas
Patrick McDonnell | Suspenseful Tales | 2020 | Acrylic latex paint, pencil and collage on canvas