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


Patrick McDonnell has long established himself as one of the best cartoonists and illustrators working today. In addition to his award-winning comic mutts, McDonnell’s illustrations were featured in The New York Times, Parents Magazine, and Time magazine. He has authored and published numerous children’s books (he earned a Caldecott Honorary Award in 2012 for Me … Jeanne), has won a number of National Cartoonists Society awards and has often been touted as the heir apparent to Charles Schulz.

What is less well established (and what Side Effects: Paintings by Patrick McDonnell 2016-2021 present in abundance) 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 abstract expressionists Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Cy Twombly. Unsurprisingly, the works themselves exploit this exact territory; using all the broad strokes, heavy splashes and bold fields of color 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 cartoon characters from the 20th century. In doing so, he establishes fascinating connections between the spontaneous and gestural marks of abstract painting and the gestural economy of the designer’s stroke.

While McDonnell’s good faith as a student of cartoons is unmistakable, I would say here that his knowledge of 20th century painting is at least as strong. We do not throw in the kind of skull made in Lemonade or the style of the sun shown in Lizards jumping without knowing Basquiat. In the same way, Panels is unlikely to come fully trained from an artist unfamiliar with the work of Robert Motherwell Elegies to the Spanish Republic series. As references abound. There are many nods to neo-expressionism, Pop Art, cubism and color field paintings. The venerable Ben Day points are even making an appearance.

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

All this reaches the “peak benchmark” in the form of a large red canvas titled And none will survive. Dramatically lit and hung with the kind of lonely reverence normally accorded to Mark Rothko’s hyper-dark works, there’s even a bench where viewers could have ample time to contemplate the meaning of it all! And none will survive features a mix of 1960s high and low culture that carefully slides Marvel Comics drama into the austere picture shots favored by Mark Rothko and Clifford Still.

Which does not mean Side effects is a purely academic exercise. Nor is it just an art history (or comic book) lesson. Which makes Side effects so much success is the seriousness McDonnell brings to the job. He clearly enjoys the work of rendering cartoons. He also clearly enjoys the job of applying paint to the 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 be part of the work. Like Nancy and Sluggo (who frequently appear in McDonnell’s paintings), we are both observers and participants.

Patrick McDonnell | and none will survive | 2017 | Acrylic latex paint and oil on canvas

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

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

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

All Jeff Regensburger Art Photos

Patrick McDonnell | Leaping lizards | 2021 | Acrylic latex paint, ink, oil stick, pencil, watercolor and collage on canvas
Patrick McDonnell | Tales of Suspense | 2020 | Acrylic latex paint, pencil and collage on canvas
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Jeff Regensburger

Jeff Regensburger is a painter, librarian and drummer for The Christopher Rendition rock combo. He received a BA in Fine Arts (Painting and Drawing) from Ohio State University in 1990 and an MBA from Kent State University in 1997. Jeff blogs sporadically (, tweets occasionally (@jeffrey_r), and painted if time permits.

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