Patrick McDonnell steps out of 'MUTTS' world to make comics-inspired abstract paintings

In 'Side Effects,' a just-opened exhibition at Urban Arts Space, the New Jersey artist and creator of comic strip 'MUTTS' shows his large-scale abstract paintings in public for the first time

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
"Mushroom Flower" (acrylic latex paint, ink, pencil and collage on canvas, 72" x 48" x 2.5") by Patrick McDonnell

Patrick McDonnell is best known as the creator of MUTTS, a long-running, lighthearted daily comic strip featuring Earl the dog and Mooch the cat. But off and on since college, McDonnell has also made abstract paintings on the side, though he mostly has kept the work to himself.

Then in 2016, McDonnell introduced 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 the two characters 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 surrealism about them, which is really nice. A lot of Nancy and Sluggo jokes are them seeing strange things,” McDonnell said recently by phone. “I've studied [Bushmiller’s] work really closely and, boy, he draws the back of their heads looking at stuff a lot. … So they became good conduits for my audience.”

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 display a couple of his large-scale paintings, but Robb pitched a collaboration with OSU’s Urban Arts Space, a Downtown gallery with ample wall space for an exhibition featuring dozens of his pieces. The show was scheduled to debut last year, but COVID delayed the exhibition a year — a postponement for which McDonnell is now grateful.

"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 with Nancy and Sluggo. … It becomes like an afternoon at the gallery with your friends,” said McDonnell, who, during the year-plus pandemic delay, began playing with different characters, themes and styles in his work. “I feel like the paintings kept on evolving and getting better.”

"Life ('Nuff Said)" (acrylic latex paint, oil stick, ink, pencil, watercolor and collage on canvas, 68" x 48" x 1 3/8") by Patrick McDonnell

Now, Nancy and Sluggo are joined by other classic comics characters: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Jack Kirby’s Captain America and the mustachioed protagonist from Milt Gross’ Nize Baby strips. Over time, McDonnell realized these new paintings reflected “the craziness of the times we're living in — the emotional feeling of being out of control, and that constant feeling of dread amid the absurdity of what was going on,” he said.  

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

More:Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum goes to the dogs

At first, the shift in tone came via the gaze of Nancy and Sluggo, who began looking at McDonnell’s recurring images of mushroom clouds, similar to those that appear in the wake of a nuclear bomb. “Then I started adding skulls, which is funny because I do a very sweet comic strip, MUTTS, and I usually don't draw things like that. But it just seemed right for these paintings,” he said. “I loved the nonchalance of Nancy and Sluggo, because they've seen it all, and it's kind of how we were all coping and dealing with things. A part of you can't really think about it. You just look at it and say, ‘OK, another day.’”

Often, McDonnell would paint over his work multiple times until it felt right, and silhouettes of previous attempts sometimes peek out from behind the paintings, interacting with the images from the final version. In “A Maddening Thing,” Dick Tracy clutches a skull in his left hand while gazing heavenward against a blank backdrop of negative space, but in the top left corner, McDonnell leaves a yellowed newspaper partially uncovered by the 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" x 48" x 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 obfuscated by the white brush strokes, on top of which McDonnell added a single pink flower.   

Rather than pay homage to his comics heroes solely in the paintings, McDonnell also included an “Influences & Inspirations” room, featuring the work of eight cartoonists who helped to inspire his paintings, including Bushmiller, Kirby, Gould, Frederick Opper, George Herriman and others. “The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum has such a great collection, so there's a Chester Gould original, Krazy Kat tear sheets, Jack Kirby originals... I would go to this show just to see that,” McDonnell said.

"Rescue at Sea" (acrylic latex paint, ink, oil stick and pencil on canvas, 48" x 60" x 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 McDonnell completed these pieces in 2021 as the pandemic seemed to be letting up and vaccinations became readily available. In “The Tin Man,” the Wizard of Oz character gazes lovingly at a diagram 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" x 48" x 1 3/8") by Patrick McDonnell

“I started feeling like maybe there was a little hope,” McDonnell said. “That was after getting the second [vaccine] shot. I feel like it was the art's second shot, too. … I haven't painted as much [recently], but I'm really curious to see if I'm still as optimistic as I was when I did those.”

In the closing piece of “Side Effects,” Nancy and Sluggo observe a wall-size, Jackson Pollock-evoking painting full of chaotic lines, drips, splatters and symbols, with red and pink flowers in the corners. And while the two characters have remained mostly silent throughout the exhibition, McDonnell gives them a word bubble in this final painting: “Yep -- I like to visit art galleries.”