- Jon McNaughton is a Utah-based artist who depicts American politics from a conservative and Christian perspective.
- McNaughton’s paintings often go viral on the internet because of their overly flattering or demeaning depictions of political figures, like President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama.
- McNaughton, while a highly skilled painter, feels he is “at odds” with the rest of the global art community.
Painter Jon McNaughton’s works have drawn considerable attention online – from pro-Trump conservatives, and yes, even the art world.
McNaughton is known for fawning depictions of President Donald Trump, other Republicans, and religious figures. He is also known for his outlandish paintings of former President Barack Obama and Democrats, who are often depicted conducting heinous acts like burning the US Constitution or excoriating Jesus Christ on the floor of the House of Representatives.
He has received high praise for his work from many Republican elected officials. His painting of the biblical figure Moses hangs inside the Louisiana Department of Justice Building. An edition of the same painting was the subject of an auction by South Carolina Rep. Jeff Duncan, a conservative Republican.
McNaughton’s most recent painting, titled “Crossing the Swamp,” went viral for its recasting of Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” with members of the Trump administration. The painting depicts Trump as Washington, while paddling through a swamp outside the US Capitol building surrounded by national security adviser Jon Bolton holding a hunting rifle à la Elmer Fudd, Vice President Mike Pence holding the American flag, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson apparently paddling in the wrong direction.
In an interview with Business Insider, McNaughton said the painting of Trump crossing the swamp took quite a while. He conceptualized it a year ago, but took months to fine tune the painting to its final product.
“You hear a lot of talk about draining the swamp – Trump talked about that – and I thought, ‘It’s going to take a lot longer than maybe two terms of the president to drain that swamp.’ I mean, that’s got to take a generation,” he said. “So for me I thought it made more sense to try to cross the swamp, which is what I believe Trump is doing. So I thought, ‘How can I present this idea?’ And the iconic painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, I thought how fun it would be to be Trump holding up his lantern and in a swamp and it just kinda evolved from there.”
“I’ll get an initial idea and then I’ll start thinking of ways that I can put a few more layers on the onion, so to speak, and I have a lot of fun with that,” he added, noting that he will conceptualize and finish some paintings in less than a week.
Regardless of your views on the subject matter, it is clear that McNaughton is a well-trained and skilled painter. He has been painting since childhood and feels removed from an otherwise liberal, global community of artists.
“The art world is at odds with Jon McNaughton,” he said. “Because I break just about every rule that they say you should never do. I remember somebody came into my art gallery once and said, ‘This is not art. Any times you mix politics and religion, definitely not art.’ And I said to him, ‘That’s exactly what art is.’ Because what’s going to bring out more emotion in the viewer than when you mix politics and art and that’s the purpose.”
Traditionally left-leaning critics do not like McNaughton’s work
To most artists and art critics, his work is kitschy, sycophantic, and a parody of itself.
Peter Schjeldahl, an art critic for The New Yorker, called McNaughton’s 2010 painting “The Forgotten Man” a “dismal-looking picture” but also wrote that it “points to the rise and possible consolidation of a new nationalist, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-élitist élite, one that co-opts modern art’s cynosures of energy and novelty to express and inspire a militantly rightist agenda.”
Christopher Knight, an art critic for The Los Angeles Times, called McNaughton’s work “junk” that missed the mark on every level.
“The painting is junk (yes, junk) not because its style is realist or anti-modern or the image is pandering or inflammatory (you should pardon the expression),” Knight wrote in a 2012 critique of McNaughton’s “One National Under Socialism,” which depicts Obama burning the US Constitution. “The primary reason McNaughton’s painting is a flop is simply that conflicting interpretations can be credibly applied to an image whose only function is to illustrate one idea.”
Possibility of representing the US in Venice
But the feelings of contempt for McNaughton’s work are not universal. He says half of America will hate his work, while the other half will love it.
“People have different views of what they consider art, and to those who hate my art, they see it as cheap propaganda. And those that like my art see it as an expression of an artist doing what he believes,” McNaughton said. “And some of the most famous artists in history painted political subjects, and nobody called them propagandists. I mean, if I was to paint for the government and they paid me, yeah ,it would be propaganda. It’s just kind of how different views, even in the art world, will try to define what’s art and what’s not.”
And it’s not just him. Justin Lieberman, an American-born, Germany-based conceptual artist, thinks highly of McNaughton and has gone as far as to start a petition to convince the State Department to nominate him to represent the US at the 2019 Venice Biennale, a prestigious art exhibit in Italy.
Lieberman sees the opportunity of sending McNaughton to the Venice Biennale as a means to counteract the elitist grip on the process.
“I saw it as an opportunity to put the selection process in the hands of the people, rather than a cadre of curatorial elites, whose abuse of the system has created a situation in which most regular people feel that contemporary art is a big scam perpetrated on the public,” he told ArtNet News in an interview. “Unlike the flood of readymades, techno-fetishist video environments, and fabricated objects churned out by studios employing innumerable assistants, McNaughton’s paintings embody the American ideals of self-reliance, craftsmanship, and entrepreneurial spirit.”
McNaughton told Business Insider that he thinks the push for him to represent the US among the world’s elite artists in Venice is nothing more than a troll.
But he did not rule anything out. If he were to be nominated, McNaughton would “of course” accept, calling it a high honour. “But I don’t expect [to be selected],” he added.
A spokesperson for the State Department told Business Insider that the selection for the Venice Biennale is still in process.
The 58th edition of the Venice Biennale has a unique theme too. Venice Biennale President Paolo Baratta, and its 2019 curator Ralph Rugoff, announced in July that the theme will be “May You Live in Interesting Times,” in a nod to the global scourge of “fake news.”
“At a moment when the digital dissemination of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ is corroding political discourse and the trust on which it depends, it is worth pausing whenever possible to reassess our terms of reference,” Rugoff said. “The fifty-eighth international art exhibition will not have a theme per se, but will highlight a general approach to making art and a view of art’s social function as embracing both pleasure and critical thinking.”
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