Is Jon McNaughton trolling the left — or the right?

Inside the studio of America’s most controversial artist

At first glance, Jon McNaughton’s in-home studio looks like any other. 

A stool sits in front of an easel. A desk to one side is covered in brushes and splotched palettes. Framed paintings dot the walls, including a mountain landscape, a portrait and a modern rendering of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that McNaughton’s space is uniquely his own — the rendering of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” for instance, features the former president Donald Trump instead of Washington — and the crew in the boat paddles across a swamp, with the U.S. Capitol rotunda glowing in the background. 

If you feel McNaughton’s artwork is politically provocative and polarizing, the artist agrees. “I actually gauge the success now of the painting by how much backlash I get,” McNaughton muses. 

By that metric, McNaughton’s latest release was a smashing success. “The Magnificent Seven” — the name pays homage to the classic 1960 Western film — depicts Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan holding rifles and flanking a serpent-crushing Donald Trump. The piece sparked a firestorm on Twitter and was sarcastically lauded by New York Magazine as “something to behold.” 

McNaughton, for his part, doesn’t spend much time on social media (he says his original Twitter account was taken down), but he hears enough to dish out his own critique: People take his artwork too seriously. “That’s what drives the left crazy, because they look at me, like, ‘that guy’s serious,’” he elaborates. “And I’m laughing the whole time I paint this thing.”

But the left isn’t the only group taking McNaughton seriously.

The main audience invested in his work is the MAGA-wing of today’s Republican Party. Take, say, political commentator Nick Adams, who considers McNaughton to be the “Vincent van Gogh of the 21st century,” or Fox News personality Sean Hannity, who paid tens of thousands of dollars for two McNaughton originals (the artist reciprocated by painting Hannity as Paul Revere).

Herein lies the puzzle of McNaughton. His paintings are loud and often ludicrous, but McNaughton is personally soft spoken and gentle. His art sometimes portrays Trump as a demigod-like figure, even though McNaughton was initially slow to join the Trump camp and is more than willing to acknowledge Trump’s missteps. While each new painting circulates on social media, and as critics fume, McNaughton remains cheerfully at his easel, toiling away. 

As McNaughton prepared to launch his latest venture — a series of Trump-themed originals published as crypto-based NFTs (non fungible tokens) — I traveled to McNaughton’s studio to understand America’s most controversial artist. What I encountered was a self-portrait of paradox: an artist who says his work is taken too seriously when it generates uproar, but one whose remarkable success feeds off the controversy. 

Art experts can’t seem to reach a consensus on McNaughton. New York Magazine called his work “visually dead as a doornail,” but other critics describe him as an “accomplished craftsman” and “talented.” 

Even more mixed is the assessment of McNaughton’s motives. 

Why would an unpretentious, once modestly-successful landscape artist dive headfirst into a minefield of politics-by-paintbrush? A piece in The Atlantic speculates that his work is primarily for future generations, nothing more; others say he’s merely holding a mirror up to our own political age. 

When I asked McNaughton directly about his motives, he told me he paints for himself, not for external approval. But, of course, there’s no hiding that he also makes good money doing it. One of his originals is valued at over $300,000. 

I asked if McNaughton does this for the money, and he joked that he’d actually have more financial success if he were a liberal — he’d be more mainstream, he says, contending his Twitter would not have been suspended nor his Facebook ads blocked. “I never did this because I was trying to get approval,” he tells me. “I just did it for myself. I don’t try to get (Trump) to approve or anything.” 

But McNaughton has an uncanny ability to generate political gasps, and therefore attention; much like, well, the same former president McNaughton features so prominently in his recent works. 

Why would an unpretentious, once modestly-successful landscape artist dive headfirst into a minefield of politics-by-paintbrush?

When left-leaning comedian Stephen Colbert poked fun at McNaughton’s “One Nation Under Socialism,” back in 2012, McNaughton says he just laughed — not only because Colbert missed some of the painting’s symbolism, but because the segment only served to spike McNaughton’s sales, he says. The same was true after MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow hosted a tongue-in-cheek caption contest for his painting “The Forgotten Man.” 

McNaughton’s website crashed due to the subsequent influx of traffic.

“I just kind of get a kick out of reading these negative articles, especially when they get art critics to chime in,” McNaughton told me. “Because I’m like, you know, if I’m really that bad, why did they take the time to even critique me?”

In some respects, the strong reactions to McNaughton’s pieces have made him one of the most politically transgressive artists at work today. “You don’t often associate rightists with ‘political art’ or, come to that, with art much at all,” one writer in The New Yorker admitted, noting that much of the artistic world leans progressive. 

That’s what sets McNaughton apart. A writer for Salon once dubbed McNaughton the “greatest” and “most important” artist of our era because he serves as a “human vacuum-cleaner bag stuffed full of cultural and political carpet lint from the last several decades (if not centuries).”

Artist Jon McNaughton poses for a portrait at his studio in Utah County on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

McNaughton is, by most technical measures, an accomplished artist — he attended Brigham Young University on an art scholarship, and before he ever considered political paintings, he had a small gallery in the Provo mall showcasing his natural scenes and religious works. A Deseret News story from 2010 showcasing local “inspirational art” described McNaughton as being “known for his landscapes.” 

But McNaughton’s foray into political artwork wasn’t accidental. His first true political work still hangs in his office — 6-feet long, 412-feet wide. The original takes up most of the wall directly across from his easel. 

The gargantuan painting, “One Nation Under God,” portrays Jesus centered between the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court with the U.S. Constitution in hand. Surrounding him are throngs of people: Founding Fathers, soldiers from notable U.S. wars, and Davy Crockett, among others. On Christ’s right hand is a marine and a schoolteacher; on his left, a Hollywood actor and a “liberal” journalist.

When I ask about it, McNaughton’s eyes open wide. The painting’s prominent position on the wall allows him to tell me the backstory and gesture toward the details. 

It was 2008, and McNaughton felt wholly frustrated. To him, the presidential election was between two candidates, neither of whom merited his vote. 

“I​​ was in my studio, and I had kind of an epiphany,” he told me, his eyebrows raised behind his glasses. “As I looked at my easel, I saw that painting finished in my mind.” The painting became McNaughton’s first big hit. It was also his first controversy

Artist Jon McNaughton pulls political, religious art from BYU Bookstore

A writer in Mother Jones mocked elements of the piece, but also admitted that the details are “impressive” and “painstaking.” The piece served as a launching pad for a pair of bestselling sequels: “One Nation Under Socialism,” in which Obama, not Jesus, holds the Constitution, this time in flames; and “The Forgotten Man,” where Obama stands with one foot atop the Constitution with a downtrodden man to his right.

The trajectory of McNaughton’s artistic journey, in many ways, follows the last two decades of conservative politics. But even McNaughton sees incongruencies on the right. “Conservatives are more divided than the left, in my opinion,” he observes. 

As evidence, he points out how much backlash he receives any time he includes Abraham Lincoln in a painting. “There’s a good percentage of conservatives who can’t stand the guy.”

But many of McNaughton’s bestsellers today share a common theme: Trump. Trump on a Harley; Trump playing football; Trump at an easel painting Monet’s “Water Lilies.”

A pillow printed with a sketch of former President Donald Trump is pictured on the couch in artist Jon McNaughton’s studio in Utah County on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. | Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Toward the end of our conversation, we began discussing the news of the day: COVID-19, the economy, Kyle Rittenhouse. At the mention of Rittenhouse, McNaughton tells me he did a painting, but hasn’t released it. It was too dark, he explains. 

“Do you want to see it?” he asks.

I obliged, and he handed me a small, letter-sized canvas. At the center, a distraught Rittenhouse screams, tied to a burning stake, blood dripping from his eyes. Surrounding him are a sea of fists, raised in the air.

“It’s called ‘Peaceful Protest,’” McNaughton says. “Not a lovely painting, but I don’t always do things that I think are gonna sell,” he concludes.

McNaughton relies on the left for publicity, and the right for profitability.

McNaughton relies on the left for publicity, and the right for profitability; he wants viewers to chuckle at his art, but then to also consider whatever message he intends to convey. He points to “The Magnificent Seven,” still on the easel, as an example. “The first reaction is, you know, that’s funny. And then you think, you know, our country’s a mess.”

“I know they’re provocative,” McNaughton admits about his art.

So, too, are many political cartoons, though they rarely seem to draw consistent ire like McNaughton’s work. Perhaps the difference is McNaughton’s technical skill, and the medium in which he works. But when I ask if people take his artwork too literally, he answers affirmatively, then backtracks slightly. 

“They see into it what they want to see into it,” he says. At another point, he describes his artwork as “a parable, or a parody, or some kind of visual metaphor,” some of which is “almost outrageous.” But if they see the “underlying message,” he continues, “they’ll see the seriousness of it.”

McNaughton chooses not to hang his political works in his home, even while right-leaning households throughout America buy them up. Art is part mystery, and so, too, is McNaughton. Whether he is holding a mirror to our political landscape or just trying to turn a buck, his controversial art is here to stay — regardless of which side is taking it more seriously.