Photographs by Jeremy Kramer
Jonathan Queen is giving a lecture at the Taft Museum, and it’s safe to say he’s speaking to an appreciative audience. Queen might be the most popular local artist at this moment by dint of his well-received and highly-publicized commission to paint 16 panels accompanying the brand-new Carol Ann’s Carousel, which debuted at Smale Riverfront Park in May. From Studio to Carousel: The Whimsical World of Jonathan Queen is on view at the Taft until September 6, and it features drawings and models that led up to the carousel art. The audience before him at the museum is largely a mix of mature long-time Taft members, folks from the Miller Gallery (which represents him), and fans.
Queen projects slides as he describes art that has inspired him. There is Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s 15th century Ghent Altarpiece, a monumental assemblage of panels that is both mystical and deeply realistic. There is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, just because. He mentions William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a French academic painter increasingly out of fashion when his Modernist peers rose in the early 20th century, and very in fashion again by the time Queen was studying art at UC in the ’90s. Bouguereau makes sense because Queen’s approach is broadly knowing but decidedly non–avant garde. He seems slightly sensitive to the notion that his work is not on the cutting edge, yet set on going his own way.
Then Queen describes an influence that makes some in the crowd chuckle. A green tiger with yellow stripes and a leather hood: Battle Cat. From the 1982 Masters of the Universe toys line. This was an action figure that inflamed the imaginations of Gen X kids, including one who was growing up in Kentucky and drawing pictures. On the box, Battle Cat waves a mighty set of claws at the viewer, while a puny Conan-like He-Man straddles him, looking like a hood ornament on a Jaguar. She’s the kind of injection-molded fantasy that has imbued Queen’s impressively realistic painting style with a surreal edge.
“Anytime you try to make something more human, you’re going to miss the mark,” says Queen. The slight squirm factor is part of what interests him.
Queen’s work—from his student days at the University of Cincinnati to the Miller Gallery paintings to the mural that brought him to the attention of the Parks Department to the carousel panels—can be user-friendly and a bit twisted. You could select a portfolio of his paintings and use it to get a commission to paint a series of carousel panels. You could assemble a second portfolio in order to get a commission to paint the best haunted house ever. The funny thing is that there would be an awful lot of overlap.
We trust our eyes; we see what we want to see. “Frankly I did not see a dark side,” says Steve Schuckman, Cincinnati Parks Superintendent of Planning, Design, and Facilities. He worked closely with Queen as he oversaw the design of the carousel. “It was clear from the get-go this was all about fun and color and activity and Cincinnati and something for the whole family. That was frankly never an issue.”
The 16 panels Queen painted for the outside of the carousel depict 31 critters bathed in bright sun and set loose playing like a bunch of 8-year-olds in various parks of the Queen City. Schuckman explains that the whole enclosed carousel is meant to embody the surrounding city, past and present. The outer panels reflect our parks; the panels that face inward depict architectural landmarks still standing (Carew Tower, the Times-Star building) and long gone (Crosley Field, a classic brewery). “The paintings, just like the animals themselves, all tell a story about our history and culture,” Schuckman says. “We wanted to create a carousel that was about Cincinnati.”
It also tells us something about the artist who made the paintings, someone capable of looking into the mouth of Battle Cat and seeing a) a harmless child’s plaything, and b) a call to action.
We live in a Peter Pandemic time, an era when adults cling to their childhood as long as they can. Twenty-five-year-olds living with their parents, 35-year-olds playing Minecraft, 45-year-olds playing Pac-Man at 16-Bit Bar + Arcade. In her much-discussed new book Why Grow Up?, the philosopher Susan Neiman labels ours an “infantile age.” She elaborated recently in an interview in Vice: “Really growing up is about thinking for ourselves, and this is something that we’re actually too lazy and too scared to do as often as we should.”
Meanwhile, in his studio in Walnut Hills, the artist is slumped over in a chair, staring at a steel shelf loaded with vintage toys. He is cradling a Big Boy doll, and pondering its cryptic smile. Like luchadors—Mexican wrestling figurines—and fat-headed lambs, the Big Boy doll is an icon Queen returns to again and again. He draws attention to the eyes glancing sideways and the grin crawling up the side of his face. “There’s a lot going on in that expression that’s not contentedness and happiness. There’s a lot going on in his mind. And I like putting that in a context that can bring it out more,” he says. “I’m trying to insert some of my own creepy interests into these toys that on the surface seem innocent.”
Jonathan Queen is obsessed with toys. He paints them as close to their real size as the picture allows so that viewers can have a direct interaction with them, then puts them in unusual contexts and messes with their features to give them vaguely human qualities. In essence, he uses artifacts of childhood to gently arrive at some uncomfortable grown-up feelings. He mines toys for what they say about adulthood.
The work he’s getting attention for at the moment, his carousel fascia panels, can seem a step away from the work that precedes it because there are no toys. An owl paints a portrait of the Abraham Lincoln statue in Lytle Park. Elephants fly kites in Ault Park. In Queen’s Washington Park, a squirrel, toad, and Lazarus lizard hook up for a jam session on the lawn of Music Hall, a setup that looks a bit like an Over-the-Rhine Country Bear Jamboree.
Yet even the carousel paintings, it turns out, sprung from toys. Queen decided to put (mostly) local animals in human situations in Cincinnati parks. He started by photographing the park settings and studying their views, looking for the best angles to paint. This was important because he needed to light the sculptures in the studio to match the natural sunlight in the photographs. Then Queen designed clay figures of all the animals, photographing them and Photoshopping them into park scenes. Then the images were projected on wooden panels. Working with an assistant, Queen painted the resulting image, in colors that look realer than real in a Disney way. It’s as if toys help him see the world, even when it’s a world he is creating.
He grew up in a blue-collar suburb of Lexington, with a dad who was a firefighter and a mom who worked at the University of Kentucky. Queen’s childhood featured a lot of video game playing and skateboarding, and a burgeoning interest in art. “There was definitely pleasure in being able to present something you made to someone and have them keep it,” he says. “It’s the only thing that I’ve ever wanted to do as a career. I just thought, I want to be a painter. When I was a kid, I didn’t know it would be painting. I just knew I wanted to be an image-maker.”
After graduating with a fine arts degree from UC, Queen held numerous jobs, including art restoration and sculpting toys for a company called Sculpco. He was scrapping. The Miller Gallery, the pop-minded local dealer, asked him if they could exhibit some of his paintings, and Queen said sure. Then he needed to paint the pictures he pledged to deliver.
He’s been with Miller ever since, initially exhibiting still lifes with an almost morbid sensibility—skulls and tied-up Obie dolls with eyes popping out. Even when he was working more subtly, the images weren’t about play: For all the use of toys, the odd juxtapositions have had a Paranormal Activity vibe. He was working closeup, with objects frequently painted in boxes, and the light was as he found it in his basement studio. The close focus and attention to detail made clear how technically impressive he was. Since about 2009, he’s opened up the tone, countered the morbidity with a lighter hand, and ventured beyond the box—even stepping into the sunlight on occasion. With help from ArtWorks, Queen landed a major mural assignment in 2012, the wall-sized rendering of produce tumbling out of a crate that’s plastered on the backside of Kroger’s headquarters. It made full use of his Technicolor prowess and gave him a city-wide viewership.
Queen has black hair and rockabilly sideburns that circumnavigate his profile. While moving quietly around his studio, the artist speaks in an understated way about his work and career so far. His low-key demeanor and the abundance of sweetness in his work probably has been useful in snagging commissions, an important source of income. At the Taft he showed a slide of a painting that was commissioned by a Hyde Park couple; Queen rendered the man as a Big Boy toy, and the woman as a doll, both staring raptly at the Roebling Bridge. Charming and wistful, there’s also an undertow, a hint of something uncomfortably artificial, that you almost wonder if the patrons sensed.
“Anytime you try to make something more human, you’re going to miss the mark,” says Queen. “Definitely one of the weirdest things about mid-20th century toys that I like is, they’d take these animals that look like they sculpted over a baby doll’s face—animal and human features merged in strange ways.” He holds up a lamb and a baby doll and shows how closely they resemble each other.
The slight squirm factor is part of what interests him; the way feelings of nostalgia can curdle into something clammy, the way you can put two dissimilar objects together and build a strange story out of their encounter. One big thing he ends up doing is making zombie art you could hang in a kid’s nursery. In these paintings, dead feelings and inanimate objects come to awkward, even grotesque life and preen across unnatural landscapes. There are no people.
“What the carousel did for me was open up my options and give me freedom to explore subject matter in new ways,” he says. He’s begun talking to a publisher about a coffee table book. At his Taft talk, you got the sense he wasn’t quite at peace with his place in the art world—that he knows he’s not advancing new ideas, not post-anything. A note of defensiveness crept into his words.
When the entire set of carousel paintings was finished, Queen got into his friend’s Subaru and drove to Philadelphia to view work by two more of his favorite painters, the late N.C. Wyeth and his son, Andrew. Both Wyeths have cultivated huge followings that love the simple and direct imagery, as well as a legion of critics who have called the work shallow and kitschy. In his studio, Queen talked about the Wyeths for a moment and then the conversation turned, as it sometimes does when talking about them, to the great American illustrator Norman Rockwell. Queen thinks a lot about him, as well.
“He was a painter for the general public,” he says. “He was amazing at visual storytelling. I feel—because I didn’t go to grad school, write a dissertation, or question people’s preconceived ideas of the world—that I try to make paintings that are relatable. Really, I try to make paintings that are meaningful to me, and I hope that that translates to other viewers.”
It translates freely, like David Lynch or the Teletubbies. From the painted pony to the green tiger with yellow stripes, he makes the uncanny seem shockingly mundane.