“Bring something new, something beautiful and something filled with light into the world.” –Ross Bleckner
The world of contemporary art can be an intimidating place. As Realism gave way to Expressionism and artists’ subject matter changed from what they saw to how they felt, art became a response to an impulse, an emotion. New materials, techniques, and rules of aesthetics emerged from this era. Epic artists such as Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Pollock, Warhol emerged and redefined art as we know it today. In the 1950s and 1960s the Pop Art movement began utilizing everyday images, cartoon characters, and advertising to close the gap between the common man and the world of fine art. This free borrowing of imagery became one of the lasting themes of Pop Art and continues into much of today’s contemporary art. The complexity of today’s art world can make defining tastes, comparing artists, describing the work, and assigning value problematic. For artists, deciding on what kind of art to make, what materials and techniques to use, how to stand out, and how to earn a living are equally challenging.
Enter Jeff McNutt, a business major turned artist after a fortunate internship with Disney that forever changed his career path and passion. Witnessing the process of animation, he was drawn to the rapid simple line drawings of the illustrators and resolved to become an illustrator of children’s books. He finished his business degree and fixed upon working in animation and children’s books. Jeff moved to Los Angeles where he learned the quick sketch of animation from artists in the movie studios. Two years later, he returned to the University of Iowa as a non-degree-seeking graduate student, where he was thrust into an intimidating art world he was completely unaccustomed to. He had never painted in his life and was now in the graduate painting program. As he progressed through the program, he realized that the objectives of a fine art program differ widely from those of an illustration program. Despite this fact, his pursuit of illustration was replaced with a love of painting.
“For me as a naïve art student, fresh out of business school, that didn’t have any art background, I was offensive to people because I would ask questions with no filter. I was taught in business school to question anything. In my circle of friends and family, the monetary value of art was often questioned… During my time at the University of Iowa, I learned the value of art and the impact it has on people’s lives greater than financial measures – the fact that there’s an energy that comes off of an original painting that affects the environment and how much value there is in that.”
As his exposure to art broadend, his appreciation of art forms also increased. Jeff completed his two years of graduate studies in painting, but his portfolio was never accepted for his masters. He could paint but still did not have the illustration experience needed for producing children’s books. Shortly after that, Jeff got married and thought to himself, “Well, I’ve tried to make it in art. Now that I am married, I should stop doing anything (artistic) and focus on a career to support my family.” Between selling Coca-Cola and, later, pharmaceuticals, Jeff supported his family and held back his passion for art. Ten years later, once his kids were self-sufficient, he acknowledged his latent yearning to paint. He found a small studio and starting painting Batman figures from his childhood. This gradually morphed into painting Herky the Hawk from the same era. Around that same time, Kinnick Stadium was being remodelled, and Jeff was able to procure some of the wood and brick debris from the demolition, which he incorporated into his Hawkeye paintings. According to Jeff, he couldn’t give away the paintings at first, but, after having a show of his work in Iowa City, the paintings gained an audience; soon he was getting commissions for Fry Fest, auctions, and from the private sector.
“I think the thing that has been most enjoyable about my work with the Hawkeyes is that there is a fun atmosphere surrounding that art crowd. It’s refreshing to talk to people who are just excited about the visual art, not deconstructing it and talking about the content…All that kind of stuff doesn’t become a debate with them. It’s more about being excited about being around the painting.”
McNutt’s Herky motifs bring to life the thrill of the game and it’s energetic mascot. This should come as no surprise given he was Herky from 1987 to 1988. Through his Hawkeye work, he continues to be a mascot for the Hawkeyes and the state of Iowa. This work led to similar commissions with the Chicago Cubs, another of his favorite teams, incorporating historical images with pieces from the old stadium and Jeff’s expressionistic style.
“I think the definition of an artist is having the sense of passion to be able to create something that has an energy that comes off of it that’s positive, that feels good, and makes the room feel warm.”
His fan base was increasing, paintings were selling, and commissions were coming in, yet the focus of his work was narrowing and its spontaneity diminishing. So, to mix thing up a bit, Jeff opened a gallery on Iowa City’s East Side. There, he represented 23 different artists, a process he found educational, but frequently frustrating. Most of his time was spent managing the gallery and little time was available for his own art. So after four years, the gallery closed, and Jeff took a break from art with a sales job that frequently landed him in Chicago. There, he connected with a number of local gallerists and artists. Inspired, he began dabbling in abstract landscapes with explosive colors, incorporating his love for the quick sketch of illustration and loose expressive marks of street art. Similar to his Hawkeye art, his abstract pieces have a subtle recognizable feature, be it a horizon, a body of water, or a floral bouquet that pulls you into the piece. His pallet is varied and techniques range from brush work to impasto to paintsticks and spraypaint. His colors are vivid but well balanced with an incredible luminosity.
“As I’m putting marks on the canvas, things start to happen in the paint where I’m putting paint on, taking paint off. It starts to develop a life of its own.”
Around this same time, Jeff’s interest in children’s books and cartoon characters resurfaced and an entire series of street-art-styled, cartoon hippo paintings inspired by one of his kids’ stuffed toys came to be. He showed these paintings alongside his abstract landscapes at the Hudson River Gallery with resounding success.
Jeff’s variety in his subject matter and artistic styles are one his greatest strengths, allowing his work to appeal to the interests of varied clientele. By embracing the ethos of Pop Art in his work, he is also able to transcend the gap between the high art market and the average art aficionado. While Jeff’s work is certainly contemporary, it is in no way intimidating. In fact, his pieces beckon for a closer look. They exude energy, warmth, and fun – things that we can all relate to.