2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Jonathan Thunder

2022 McKnight Visual Artist Fellow: Jonathan Thunder

Published April 26th, 2024 by Russ White

Re-envisioning ancient myths and contemporary cartoons into his own Baroque surrealism, Thunder catalogs the past and present of this place, its peoples, and their problems

MCAD Logo Article made possible thanks to the McKnight Visual Artist Fellowship Program. Administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.McKnight Logo

This is the fifth in a series of articles profiling the six distinguished artists chosen as 2022 McKnight Fellows in Visual Arts, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The 2022 cohort includes Pao Houa Her, Amanda Lovelee, Lamar Peterson, Emmett Ramstad, and Jonathan Thunder.

This series of written profiles has been developed concurrently with a series of video profiles produced by MCAD, the McKnight Foundation, and Clint Bohaty, available at the bottom of this page.

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Photo by Rik Sferra


In the fall of 1992, just six months after the LA riots, Ice Cube released his third solo album, The Predator — his best, in my opinion, and not just because of its big hit, “It Was A Good Day.” The collection of songs is exactly what you would expect: heavy beats, funky samples, and hard lyrics about police brutality, Black nationalism, and racism in America. Then, twelve tracks in, on top of a Parliament sample, Cube switches gears, breaks expectations, and starts rapping about, of all things, fairy tales.

What follows is a raunchy, ridiculous narrative of sex, drugs, and violence starring Snow White, Little Bo Peep, the Three Little Pigs, and Mister Rogers, among others; it’s actually part two of a story he started on his debut album, Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, which ended with Humpty Dumpty murdered in a drive-by, Cinderella snitching to the cops, and Little Boy Blue getting thrown in jail. Sesame Street would never be the same. They’re silly songs, especially in the context of Ice Cube’s larger catalog, but they do underscore something about our mythologies: how malleable they are, especially in the hands of artists.

It’s easy to recognize in Cube’s lyrics because of the outsized satire of his approach. The betrayal of innocence on display may even seem hack, but of course that’s what the songs are actually about — how when you grow up poor in a racist country, you sometimes also have to grow up fast. But artists have always molded our old stories to their own lives and their own audiences. Culture as we know it is little more than a long game of telephone. That’s why so many Christians picture Jesus as a white European: those were the people making the pictures.

I’ll give you a field trip: go to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and head up to the third floor. There’s a room in the European section where the ceilings suddenly rise up even further than you thought possible. Careful not to teeter into the circular hole overlooking the gallery below, you find yourself peering up at impossibly large canvases of saints, martyrs, gods, and legends — each one tailored to its time and place (and, often, its patron). On one wall, the Virgin Mary balances in mid-air on a crescent moon, swathed in tumultuous robes. On another, a bejeweled young princess collects the severed head of John the Baptist. And on the far wall hangs a loose triptych of unrelated biblical pictures, each one a staggering eight feet tall. In the center, a lithe, sensual Archangel Michael steps victorious on the neck of a naked, writhing Lucifer. The angel’s blue breastplate is little more than bodypaint; his above-the-knee skirt slats shimmer majestically in disco pinks and purples. It is a painting, the didactic explains, calculated by artist Cavaliere d’Arpino to appeal specifically to the tastes of Pope Urban VIII, who personally identified with the Archangel. And it seems to have worked — Arpino’s career took off from there. Flanking this work are two by other painters: on the left, Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden like a couple of shame-faced streakers; on the right, Jacob wrestles, eye to eye, with a muscly, winged angel.

It’s all very Baroque, very 17th century; you’d be hard pressed to find anything nearly as fleshy commissioned by a pope in recent memory. These stories — already thousands of years old even at that point — had been recast in the light of their own day. The set-up at Mia, though, calls to mind something much more contemporary: a similarly unrelated triptych of pictures by the painter Jonathan Thunder that were on view earlier this year at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery. These too use paint and myth to make meaning of their time and place, which, by our own great luck, is right here and right now. In one, a Native American couple harvests wild rice by boat above the sunken bones of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. In another, Woody Woodpecker offers a hatchet to Pinocchio, whose nose has grown into a gnarled, leafing branch. Like Ice Cube with his nursery rhymes or Arpino with his Archangel, Thunder has taken something that seemingly belonged to all of us — the classic folk tales as well as the modern day cartoon characters, the new immortals — and made them his own.


Top: Gallery 330 at Mia. Bottom: Paintings by Jonathan Thunder in Dreaming Our Futures: Ojibwe and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Artists and Knowledge Keepers at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, 2024. Photos by Russ White.


Of course, they weren’t always his to begin with. “Those cartoons were bad for me, but I enjoyed them,” says Thunder, who is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe. “I look back, and it was almost like a one-sided form of abuse.”

It can be easy to forget the bigotry of Bugs Bunny if you weren’t the target of it, but all the Wild West genre tropes about “Injuns” and “savages” were there from the start. Now, as an artist, Thunder can get his revenge, painting the rascally rabbit speared through the heart, or recreating characters like Woody, Pinocchio, and Jiminy Cricket in his own style. Where many Pop artists coast on the familiarity of precision nostalgia, Thunder sometimes gives the characters themselves the respect of a fresh rendering. It allows him more ownership over fictions written without him in mind. “They never really considered there'd be a little Native kid watching cartoons early in the morning,” he says. “That was never part of the plan.”


Print of an earlier Bugs Bunny painting hanging on the wall of Thunder's home studio next to another of his paintings (at left, below) and one by Gordon Coons (top).


Bubbling under the surface of his acrylics is this cultural confluence of cartoons, folklore, social commentary, and art history. “Those [Baroque] paintings blow me away. Those are the canvases that I would say shaped my interest, my want to create scenes, with things going on in them between multiple characters.” His paintings are wickedly funny, and in the Nash Gallery exhibition, Dreaming Our Futures, they paired well with those of other Native painters, particularly David Bradley and Jim Denomie, who had been a friend and mentor of Thunder’s before his passing. Both of those artists made paintings with dry humor and sharp purpose, and over Thunder’s now twenty-year career as a full-time artist, he has secured his place in this long lineage of Indigenous artists and cultural workers acting as both critics and stewards, celebrating their contemporary tribal heritage and attacking the vicious history and present outrages of American society in equal measure.

“That's how I try to craft anything I do,” he says. “It's got a little bit of poison, but it also has a little bit of an antidote. You know, like, here's the problem, and maybe this is the solution.”

But Thunder is no political cartoonist, satisfied to offer a straight-forward opinion; he’s more of a political surrealist. Much of the meaning in his work develops during the painting process, arriving automatically on the easel in the moment instead of in the sketchbook beforehand. The Pinocchio piece, for instance, Suspension of Disbelief, emerged organically.


Suspension of Disbelief, 2022. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 48". Courtesy of the artist's website.


“That's one of those paintings that just started out as like, I'll put something here. And I'll put something there,” he recalls. “And pretty soon, it was the painting that it is. So I didn't have a big plan. But I as I crafted it, I thought about what was going on at the time. I was hearing a lot about these politicians trying to make sure that schools wouldn't teach certain things that revealed the history of America.”

In the painting, the tall, gangly Pinocchio stands in a field of blue, his nose spiraling out into a full-blown branch while his eyes seem to have disappeared completely into his pink skull. At his feet, a couple of bottles labeled XXX; on his shoulder, a gray Jiminy looking down with relief at the hatchet in the hand of Woody Woodpecker. “And Woody’s saying, We can chop that thing off your face, or I can pick it off for you, right? Because either way, it’s coming off,” the artist says with a chuckle.

Another American myth seen through the eyes of a painter — Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze — serves as the inspiration for The Lighthouse. Here, painting only in grayscale, Thunder has replaced the general with the Hamburglar, greedily pointing westward and oblivious to his crew in disarray. Marvin the Martian zaps the front oarsman while Picasso’s Old Guitarist bows his head, wrapped in the American flag as though it’s a set of striped prison fatigues. While the other crewmen paddle their oars or spear fish out of the water, a pregnant woman near the stern looks knowingly to a lighthouse the small boat has just cruised right past. The implication is obvious: these idiots are in for a rocky landing.


Top: The Lighthouse, Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60”. Bottom: Summer at Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum, Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48”. Images courtesy of the artist's website.


Not all of his paintings are so easy to read. Many lean more heavily into surrealism, with skull-faced bears belly-flopping over wild-eyed ice cream cones in Summer at Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum, or a purple-faced goddess in sweatpants and bunny slippers greeting the Pink Panther at her front door in Hypnagogia. In Devil on Kazoo, a Cubist-faced billiards player shoots pool against a masked woman while Popeye and Olive Oyl swill beers. A cloud-headed man wearing Bootsy Collins shades plays guitar in the back, and the blue devil blows his little kazoo like a faun from hell.

That these strange parables don’t always yield clear meanings does not bother the artist. “I’m not walking around with a library of explanations in my head. I'm thinking about the next painting,” he says. “My agenda is not to create propaganda; it’s to create paintings.”


Carrying The Tortoise, Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 18”. Image courtesy of the artist's website.


Many motifs reoccur across his works — skulls, masks, hats, and canoes with hot-rod flames — though none so emblematic as his signature clouds and lightning bolts. His paintings also include an interesting mixture of polished rendering and slapdash abstraction, situating his concrete cartoon fiascoes within amorphous, atmospheric landscapes. “I’ve tried to avoid really trying to control everything,” he explains. “If something looks too well constructed, it’s nice to mess it up a little bit, you know. Make it a little less sacred, let some paint drip across it.” His works have a lively physicality to them, as though they have been created by someone truly enjoying the process. “If you are painting the final touches with a piece of hair, you’re probably in the most tortured state of painting,” he laughs.

Thunder also works as an illustrator and experimental filmmaker, and if you’ve flown into or out of Concourse B at MSP Airport anytime in the past few years, you’ve experienced his largest animation installation to date. Spanning the length of the tunnel walkway, Manifest’o introduces travelers to a set of myths much older than Hanna-Barbera or the Brothers Grimm; Thunder is sharing the stories that originated here in Minnesota, like the Mishibizhiw, the Great Lynx covered in scales who lives underwater in Anishinaabe lore.


Manifest'o, installation view, MSP Terminal 1, B Tunnel Projection Gallery. Courtesy of MSP Airport's Twitter.


“I was given a platform, and I had to make the decision,” Thunder says. “Am I just gonna rattle off one of my surreal stories, or am I gonna do something? Somebody handed me a mic, so to speak — what are you gonna say? And I wanted to say something about the stories that I learned about here in Duluth, and how, in northern Minnesota, you can walk into a coffee shop in Grand Rapids, and it'll say boozhoo on the door” – “hello” in Ojibwe.

Thunder has lived in Duluth for the past decade, and he says the Native community here has welcomed and supported him from the start. Born on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, he grew up in Minneapolis, first watching those cartoons and reading comic books and then listening to hip hop and getting into skateboarding. “My dad started giving me these books to keep me out of trouble — books by a writer named Basil Johnston, who would travel to remote communities in Canada and collect stories from their storytellers,” he recalls. “And when I came to Duluth, I discovered that those stories are alive here.”

During our studio visit, a work-in-progress sits out on his drawing table: a large diptych of wild rice against the blue sea of the Gichi-gami, Lake Superior. The paintings are a commission: a sparse, open, and beautifully painted composition that lacks the thickly layered narrative elements of his other work. It’s like a plein air still life, simple and elegant — clearly a Jonathan Thunder from the paint handling alone — but the paintings’ simplicity disguise a meaning that goes much deeper.

“I chose to paint wild rice because there's a heavy conversation around wild rice in Minnesota,” he explains. “It has to do with climate and it has to do with oil and it has to do with politics and it has to do with culture. But I don't need to say all those things.”


Works in progress at Thunder's studio. Photo by Russ White.


In his earlier wild rice painting, On the Grave of the Giant with the bones of Paul Bunyan, a black Line 3 tentacle reaches out of the water and into the rice harvesters' hot-rod-flamed canoe. In the background, the butter-yellow sky above perfectly recreates the familiar Land ‘O Lakes package first painted by Ojibwe artist Patrick DesJarlait (whose work hung on the wall opposite Thunder’s in Dreaming Our Futures). This time three of Thunder’s trademark cloud shapes hang empty in the air. It’s an update, an homage, and a satire all at once. Beneath the surface, a bug-eyed bass sticks its head out of one of the bearded giant’s eye sockets.

As with Ice Cube and Chuck Jones and the Baroque picture painters who came before, all artists are interpretive journalists of one sort or another. They record and report back the big truths and the tall tales from their own time and place, to make them new again, reinventing the old stories and the old gods to keep them alive one generation more. Or, as with Jonathan Thunder and old Bugs and Bunyan, to kill them off — immortals no more — before they can do any more harm. ◼︎ 


On the Grave of the Giant (detail), 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 48".


Video profile of Jonathan Thunder, courtesy of MCAD and the McKnight Foundation:


To see more of Jonathan Thunder's work, visit the artist's website or follow him on Instagram @jonthunder.

Banner image: Rabbit with Bear Skull (detail), Acrylic on wood: 36 x 48”

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