“Art was a defense mechanism that I had,” Brendan Donnelly tells me a few days after the opening of his first solo show “How To Be A Magician In Your Spare Time” at Paul Loya Gallery in Los Angeles. “I was the fat kid in school, but…I knew how to draw, and I would always draw these really messed up cartoons for all the kids in class,” he says with a chuckle. “It made me popular.” Donnelly grew up (and slimmed down) but his interest in illustrating the bizarre never waned. Like many other teens, he was obsessed with skateboarding and music, but it was the graphic element of the boards and album covers and band t-shirts that really drew him in. “If I got a good grade in class, my mom would let me pick out a skateboard,” he recalls. “I would never ride them, I would just collect them.” It was the art on these decks as well as album art by Raymond Pettibon (Black Flag and Sonic Youth, namely) and Pushead, the man responsible for all of Metallica’s most twisted tees, that were young Donnelly’s first true artistic inspirations. “And then ‘Beavis and Butthead’ came out and totally changed my life.”
Despite having “no interest in going to art school”, he ended up at one anyway, starting out at Parsons and after a few venue changes, ended up at School of Visual Arts. Donnelly spent his time there focusing on printmaking as a way to channel his sub-culture obsessions into mass-produced illustrations, which soon led to a career making t-shirts and selling them to local downtown NYC shops. “They hated me at art school,” he tells me. “You know, when you’re sitting there in a critique of your paintings, and other kids are ripping you apart, and your teacher is saying you’re never going to make it, it’s not really worth your time being there. It just kind of kills your self-esteem.” Donnelly soon dropped out, but not before selling a large-scale piece to the President of the school during an end-of-semester student show. “I wanted to go in and bring that check to my painting teacher and say fuck you,” he laughs.
He went on to do illustration and graphic design work for brands Converse and Adidas, as well as indie bands FIDLAR and Grizzly Bear, but twenty some years since drawing those weird comics to gain friends, Donnelly’s obsession with the hilarious and morbid sides of the world has yet to wane. His work is still filled with the kind of demented imagery that harkens back to those old heavy metal t-shirts and skate catalogs, only now he’s expanded his obsession with sub-culture to include all sorts of other ones, from liberal Burning Man hippies to sad Goths to bible-thumping bros who truly love guns and the MMA. He draws his inspirations from all over, from the dark corners of the Internet to the mind-blowing aspects of real life.
His current show features a series of custom car windshields, each featuring a dazzling display of imagery that is meant to be taken in the way one would on the road. “A few years ago, I took time off from everything and just traveled across America. That’s kind of where the inspiration came from. I was collecting bumper stickers and taking photos of people’s cars and all their decals. Everyone has to project their political and social values to the world, and I had to poke fun at that.”
The show also includes a series of black and white flags hung on a chain link fence with both images and slogans on them, inspired by religious cartoon pamphlets called Chick Tracts (A Donnelly example: A Grim Reaper with the words “Life sucks then you die, then you’re reincarnated and life sucks again”). Donnelly displayed his on a fence to emulate the banner ads you would see hanging outside elementary schools. “The art I’m working on now is still a reflection of our society…pop culture, sub culture. It always goes back to suburban folklore for me. And the dark side, the B-side of American culture.”
“How To Be A Magician In Your Spare Time” is on view at Paul Loya Gallery through October 25th.