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A Trove of Donelan’s Queer Cartoons Delights at Jameson & Thompson

A charming retrospective of Jamaica Plain-born artist Gerard P. Donelan features forty cartoons and watercolors made from the late seventies through the late nineties, offering art that’s by turns raunchy and pensive while delivering delightful bits of queer history.

Review by Claire Ogden

Black and white comic illustrations feature queer themes.

Gerard P. Donelan, two single-panel comics. Courtesy of Jameson & Thompson Picture Framers. Photo by Matthew Jacoby-Brooks.

Nestled in the cozy downstairs gallery at Jameson & Thompson Picture Framers, “DONELAN: Drawing on the Gay Experience” is a charming retrospective of Jamaica Plain-born artist Gerard P. Donelan’s work. The exhibition features forty cartoons and watercolors made from the late seventies through the late nineties, offering art that’s by turns raunchy and pensive while delivering delightful bits of queer history.

Donelan is best known for his single-panel cartoon “It’s a Gay Life,” which ran in The Advocate for fifteen years and mocked the gay “clone” culture of San Francisco’s Castro district. His cartoons are quirky and irreverent, life-like yet restrained in details and shading. A playful line-up from the series—framed and unframed—takes up the left side of the gallery, an island wall creating the illusion of spaciousness in the snug interior. Though the work was originally presented in magazine format, it’s a treat to see it framed and well-hung (pun intended).

The show is a labor of love for curator George Donelan, who is Gerard’s brother and a longtime staff member at Jameson & Thompson. He works there as a fitter and, according to his colleague Matthew Jacoby-Brooks, installed most of the work in the show himself.

Installation view of “DONELAN: Drawing on the Gay Experience" at Jameson & Thompson Picture Framers

Installation view, “DONELAN: Drawing on the Gay Experience,” Jameson & Thompson Picture Framers, July through August 31, 2023. Walls featuring illustrations on the left and right, “Study 1” on the back wall. Courtesy of Jameson & Thompson Picture Framers. Photo by Matthew Jacoby-Brooks.

Donelan’s cartoons are bawdy and brilliant; their subjects range from cruising to coming out of the closet. Some personal favorites include two pieces about queer presentation and the politics of fashion faux pas. Though some of the jokes are a bit dated, Donelan’s pointed commentary is a concise and clever time capsule of (largely white, male, monosexual) gay life.

As a queer woman who came of age with Instagram, I was surprised by the outrageousness of these ’toons. Much in the way that today’s youth learn about identity on social media, “It’s a Gay Life” was likely a source of validation for many. In a climate of what Colton Valentine calls “queer presentism”—or, the positioning of contemporary queer artists as “liberators of the closeted past”—work like Donelan’s is a good reminder that American gays of the last century were also out, proud, and irreverent, much as they are now.

Donelan’s poster for the NAMES Project (responsible for the AIDS Memorial Quilt) hangs past the cartoon wall, a nod to his work in gay and lesbian activism. Likewise, a series of charcoal and watercolor works reveal Donelan’s more subtle, pensive side. In combining the silly and the serious, “DONELAN” shows that the artist’s career has been more than cartoons—and queer life is more than camp. 

Installation view of “DONELAN: Drawing on the Gay Experience" on view at Jameson & Thompson Picture Framers. With a focus on Studies 1, 2, & 3

Installation view, “DONELAN: Drawing on the Gay Experience,” Jameson & Thompson Picture Framers, July through August 31, 2023. Studies 1, 2, & 3. Courtesy of Jameson & Thompson Picture Framers. Photo by Matthew Jacoby-Brooks.


DONELAN: Drawing on the Gay Experience” is on view at Jameson & Thompson until August 31.

 

Claire Ogden

Contributor

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