Brian McDonald Urban Folk Hero

By Shannon Gallagher

Brian McDonald’s playful, layered collage paintings evoke a sense of humor within the viewer, playing on words and imagery while simultaneously delivering commentary on society, politics, and modern life. The characters and worlds he creates are reminiscent of outsider art, street art, and Dadaism, while maintaining a style that is uniquely his. McDonald, whose self-described visual aesthetic is “urban folk art,” said that his driving force is the feeling that art is the perfect vehicle for processing the world around him. “To me, it’s about making sense of the chaos of a dense, urban, consumerist society- finding a truth and a beauty in the messiness of life,” he explained.

Booby Trap 15x19 Mixed Media

Booby Trap 15×19 Mixed Media


In terms of creating the work, McDonald’s objective is linked to communication and spirituality. “My intention is to create a type of elusive visual poetry, one that reveals itself to the viewer over time and acts as a schema to inspire the viewer to make their own connections based on personal associations.” He relates making art with expression of one’s soul. “It’s like when I hear a particularly beautiful piece of music or read a really great book, or experience any kind of work that deeply resonates with my being… it touches something inside of me, and I almost feel like it’s a connection to God, in a spiritual and not a religious sense,” he said.

 Drive Thru 12x10 Mixed Media

Drive Thru 12×10 Mixed Media


McDonald, who studied languages (French and Italian) in college, always felt a creative urge, but was unsure of what it was. “I thought maybe I wanted to be a writer,” he said, “so I tried writing. But that wasn’t what I wanted. Then I tried making furniture, but that wasn’t it. One thing led to another, and eventually, I took a painting class. Within the first few days, I was hooked. It was like making magic,” he recalled.

McDonald My Heart Is Full 37x43 Mixed Media copy


One of the artist’s first main influences was the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. “He really influenced a playful, urban, messy aesthetic that I totally embraced. In my work, I see elements of music’s influence, too. There’s a lot of depth, structure, movement, pattern, and rhythm present. Sometimes, I’ll be listening to music and I will think, “That’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve,” he said. McDonald also lists cartoons and dreams as major influences in his pieces. “Sometimes I think that I get my offbeat humor from watching cartoons, and also the idea of creating individual, self-contained worlds. The Simpsons was my favorite for a long time, and right now I’m watching Archer and Adventure Time,” he said.

 Slippy 11x11 Mixed Media

Slippy 11×11 Mixed Media


Ideas are sparked from “constant collecting of images, text, and ephemera that I find interesting, funny, and/or quirky.” McDonald said that he never knows how, when, where, or even if an idea will be used. “Often times, I will make something, a figurative drawing, for example, thinking I will use it for a certain idea, but then it doesn’t really work for whatever reason, so I will scrap the idea, and repurpose the drawing in another piece.” The artist rarely has a finished idea in mind when he starts a new painting, preferring instead to work intuitively and let the piece guide him in the direction it wants to go.

Swedish Hangover 11x11 Mixed Media

Swedish Hangover 11×11 Mixed Media


When McDonald sets out to create a new work, he starts by collaging the entire surface of the painting with things that he has collected, including pieces of junk mail, old to-do lists, pages from books, and things he finds on the street. Next, he adds a few layers of paint on top of the collaged background to begin building texture and depth. Then, he begins to create a central composition by playing with various figurative drawings that have been cut up. “From there, it is a kind of push and pull as layers of paint and collage are woven together to create a dense network of narrative possibilities,” he explained. The most indispensable tool in his studio is matte medium. “I love that stuff. I use it because I collage elements. I use it to glue things down, I use it as a sealant, and to give my paintings a uniform finish. I also recently discovered how to make acrylic transfers of photocopies using layers of matte medium and peeling off the backing.”


The offbeat humor in McDonald’s work certainly makes people laugh. “I think that’s a great compliment,” he said. “I definitely have a lot of little jokes and visual puns in my work. I do purposely try to make it funny.” As far as political and social commentary is concerned, the artist also includes observations of society’s exploitation of animals for human consumption and exploitation of natural resources and people for material gains.

One thing that the artist continues to learn is how to deal with challenges in the painting process. “The most frustrating thing about art is letting go and trusting that a piece that is stuck and sitting idle will, at some point, be resolved. I want to feel that I am in control, but that is not always the case. Some pieces need to stew for awhile, sitting untouched for months or even years, before I see it differently, leading to resolution,” he said. He noted that it’s easy to sometimes perceive the work as a failure, rather than thinking of it as a puzzle that a piece might be missing from. “But I will find the piece,” he added. The sense of satisfaction when he finishes a painting is the most rewarding part of being an artist, in McDonald’s eyes. “I never know exactly how a piece will turn out. I might have a kernel of an idea of what I think I’m going to do, but I’m most happy when it pleasantly surprises me at the end- it delights me when that happens.”


McDonald, who is from suburban Los Angeles but has lived in San Francisco for the past 24 years, is influenced by the hustle and bustle of the city, but also gains inspiration from another kind of business- that of the natural world. “One of my favorite places to go is the Cayman Islands. I really love Little Cayman the most because it’s the smallest of the three islands. The population is about 150 people. The times that I’ve spent there have been in the summer or the fall, which is the slow season- so there are barely any people, and it’s a wonderful place to connect with nature, get away from people. I love to go exploring, scuba diving, and on long bike rides. Yet it’s a hustle and bustle of a different kind- of insects and birds, lizards and fish. It’s different because it’s very spacious, there’s not a lot of people- but at the same time, it’s very dense, and almost chaotic in its own natural way.”


Brian McDonald’s paintings are now on display at ZIA Gallery.