JT Steiny Wasn't a Political Artist — Then Donald Trump Ran for President

JT Steiny Wasn't a Political Artist — Then Donald Trump Ran for President
JT Steiny/Courtesy Daniel Rolnik Gallery

JT Steiny's art varies from large, acrylic paintings to small watercolor pieces and pencil illustrations. He has made comic strips, such as "A Native's Notebook" — which ran in L.A. Weekly in the late '00s — and published books. His work is witty and thoughtful but rarely overtly political. That's just not his style. Then something changed: Donald Trump entered the presidential race.

"I'm sure it's all redundant and everybody is sick of hearing it," Steiny says as a preface, "but the fact that this guy could make millions of people dislike other millions of people and bring it all to the surface, single-handedly like that, is just crazy."

Steiny has a lot to say about Trump, much of it similar to what you've probably heard from friends or have said yourself. He talks about the candidate's speech at the Republican National Convention with the hyperbolic emphasis that befits a man whose insults are extreme and whose promises are "great" and dotted with exclamation points. "He named every single potential problem ever in the history of recorded mankind and said he was going fix it," Steiny says. He also doesn't like what the campaign has brought out in the onlookers, the fear and disdain for each other. "It's gotten spooky how people are treating each other," he says.

But Steiny also says that maybe this is necessary: "I think he's exposing who we really are."

As Trump's profile in the election race grew larger, Steiny kept making art. He's made both quick sketches and detailed illustrations. In one, the Republican candidate appears like a "huge" piece of fool's gold, to use Trump's own beloved word. Another, which features two Donalds in a compromising position, reads "Sure, fuck yerself, but not us." And the political pieces go beyond Trump. Steiny also has churned out a number of anti-gun pieces, as well as some general sketches from both the Republican and Democratic conventions. The works will be on display in Steiny's solo show, "Oh My," which opens at Daniel Rolnik Gallery in Pasadena with a daylong event on Saturday, Aug. 13.

For Rolnik, Steiny's latest works gave him the opportunity to become more politically active despite spending much of his time stuck inside an art gallery. "I kept getting emails about sit-ins and protests about anti-gun and things like that, but I could never leave the shop because I'm the only employee," Rolnik says. "By doing an art show, it's my way of doing a protest." (Disclosure: I was recently a guest on the podcast Rolnik co-hosts, The Jew and the Lotus.)

Steiny, Rolnik and I recently met up at Steiny's studio, a large, detached garage at his mother's Windsor Square home, which is overflowing with art. There's a corner full of toys that might end up in some works later, and the walls are covered in large paintings. They bear a resemblance to his drawings in the faces that seem to flatten and expand as if you're looking at them through the bottom of a glass, but the paintings are more detailed and feature more daring color combinations. One on the back wall, a psychedelic people scene where shades of orange and pink blaze across the canvas,  is set to be part of the solo show. "Now, that's art," Steiny says. 

Meanwhile, over by Steiny's desk, Rolnik is holding a hefty stack of drawings that Steiny produced while watching three nights of the DNC and two nights of the RNC at his home, not far from here. He had started out with watercolors but finished the stack with pencils and pens. "That's not art," he says.

Steiny teaches at Otis College of Art and Design. He also graduated from the school's first illustration class, back when the campus was located near MacArthur Park. "There's a fine art building," he says. "Then there's an illustration and communications arts building." He teaches in the latter. "There are different philosophies in those two things — that's why there's a whole separate building."

JT Steiny Wasn't a Political Artist — Then Donald Trump Ran for PresidentEXPAND
JT Steiny/Courtesy Daniel Rolnik Gallery

Steiny spent years working as a magazine and newspaper illustrator. He worked in advertising at various points in his career as well. Today, he focuses on the gallery work. Plus, he teaches students how to tell stories visually. Somewhere in the back of his studio, there are containers filled with an estimated 20 years' worth of homemade books that he's had them produce. (He explains: "It's kind of a version of hoarding, and I don't know how healthy it is, but it's too late now.")

The convention art consists of loose sketches of the participants — everyone from Scott Baio to President Obama — with notes in the margins. Steiny says it's "self-indulgent," adding, "I don't expect anybody to really care, but it's fun to produce. 

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"I love the whole idea of trying to come up with some political, social commentary on the fly," he says. "It's like improvisation of comedy; can you think of something witty or philosophical or poetic in three minutes while these guys are talking? It's just a challenge." It's the sort of exercise he might have his students do. But Rolnik decided that he wants Steiny to include the sketches in his upcoming show. As we continue talking, Steiny again comments on which of his pieces qualify as art and which don't. His tone mixes seriousness with sarcasm, as if to stress that, in the end, maybe the fine art–versus-illustration debate doesn't matter.

For Rolnik, it's not an issue. "I think I just show pieces of life," he says. That seems to be the case for his shows with Steiny. Previously, Rolnik showed Steiny's series "Dog a Day," which were watercolors of dogs that he produced every day for a year after his own unleashed pooch wandered into the street and was hit by a car. Steiny refers to the series as "penance for being a horrible parent."

That philosophy of art as slices of life certainly is evident in Steiny's work. "It's existence," he says. "There is not a definitive definition, although some people think there is."

For Steiny, who says he's "more of an entertainer than an artist," the sentiment behind the work is crucial to the piece. "I want to be philosophical," he says. "I want to make a few marks and have people say that's fuckin' funny or that's smart or that's poetic or that's beautiful, on an intellectual level."

And if art is about documenting life, then, certainly, Donald Trump is part of that. "Everybody is talking about him," says Steiny. "That's all he wanted. He wanted everybody on this planet to say his name as much as humanly possible, and he got it."

Steiny is running with that. He has even taped up some of his images on the sides of structures. Most recently, his orange "Trumpalumpas" have turned up on the side of a black building on La Brea and Santa Monica. The idea is that the pieces stay up for a few days until people "steal" them. Frequently, though, they last only a few hours.

Steiny recalls the bumper stickers that repeatedly turned up on cars years ago with sayings like, "Censorship Is Un-American — "the equivalent of what would be viral back in the day," he says — and takes inspiration from that. He says that he wants to make the kind of work that becomes embedded in the pop culture landscape. "I like the challenge of creating images that could potentially be powerful," he says. "Now I have subject matter that makes me crazy, and that helps."

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JT Steiny/Courtesy Daniel Rolnik Gallery

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