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Jonathan McAfee's portraits of Vonnegut 

click to enlarge Jonathan McAfee, "SH5"
  • Jonathan McAfee, "SH5"

Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t the most optimistic of novelists. The author was, however, passionately devoted to an array of progressive and humanitarian causes. It came through in the speeches he gave and the essays he wrote. And it's this Vonnegut that painter Jonathan McAfee tries to portray in a series of portraits, What People Like About Me Is Indianapolis, opening Friday at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library

“Here’s the thing,” McAfee said as he put the finishing touches on the series in his basement studio. “I feel like I’m more of a fan of him as an individual. I can’t say that I’ve read all of his books. I can say that in the research I’ve done for this series, I’ve really grown to respect his opinions on creativity and the environment.”

click to enlarge Jonathan McAfee, "Portrait of the Author as an Old Man"
  • Jonathan McAfee, "Portrait of the Author as an Old Man"

McAfee's mixed media paintings — three large portraits of Vonnegut and twelve smaller ones — are playful and painterly. None of them gesture toward the author’s more nihilistic side (as exemplified by the ending of his Cat's Cradle, when the narrator considers suicide). All the portraits are based on five photographs taken of Vonnegut at different periods of his writing career. In every one of them, he sports a mustache.

“He’s fun to paint,” McAfee said. “He’s almost a caricature of himself. So it feels like a natural fit to build an entire series to him.”

One large-scale portrait bears the stenciled title of Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five. Like all the others it is a mixed media work — markers, acrylic paint and spray paint on canvas. He builds up the paint and other media in layers, letting each layer dry before adding the next, so the colors don’t mix and become muddy.

click to enlarge Jonathan McAfee, "KV"
  • Jonathan McAfee, "KV"

While McAfee's work is definitely Pop art influenced — the big wow moment of his artistic life was seeing Andy Warhol’s screen print “Mao” at the Art Institute of Chicago — you can see Abstract Expressionist influences as well. There are drips in his painting, thick brushstrokes and wild bursts of color everywhere.

And he cites another, more contemporary influence for the series: The UK-based, Canada-born artist Andrew Salgado, who employs a painstakingly layered approach to create his large scale paintings.

“There are the challenges of the different layers and the patience involved,” McAfee said. “I would typically start for the most part with white blank canvases and then do the initial sketch in Magic Marker or Sharpie and build off of that. But some of them the backgrounds were created first and then painted over and then completely painted over.”

click to enlarge Jonathan McAfee, "KV2"
  • Jonathan McAfee, "KV2"

And McAfee's new series is allowing him to explore unusual media.

“I’ve been working a lot with house paint," he says. "I’ve been able to select my colors make up my own colors rather than select what’s in the tube at the local arts supply store. So that’s been nice and it’s helped me branch out a little bit. It still stays true to my palette for the most part… but it’s got a different batch of values, different colors that I normally haven’t used. And the spray paint’s been fun. I haven’t used spray paint to this extent before.”

click to enlarge McAfee in his studio. - DAN GROSSMAN
  • McAfee in his studio.
  • Dan Grossman
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