A PAIR OF DRUNKEN samurai reel down a street at night. Two kimono-clad girls hold back a third, her face screwed up in anger, her fist clenched. A cowboy (wearing only a 10-gallon hat and boots) and an Indian girl (wearing only a headband and moccasins) stand with their backs to us, looking back over their shoulders with proud disdain.

Joseph Park's cartoon-like scenes obscure their disturbing content under veils of innocence. The compositions feature between one and three figures, rendered with oversized heads, large eyes, and childish bodies, dressed in adult clothing and placed into adult situations. In some cases, Park works with animals as his characters; similarly, these are shown in situations drawn from adult human life. A palpable buzz of sex and, less often, violence vibrates through Park's images, whether it's a secretary seated on a desk, the end of a fountain pen at her lips (Dictate), or the girl with the clenched fist in Noon. While you'd think seeing adult character lapses reimagined with childish actors would make the scenes look more disturbing, the opposite tends to happen; maybe in the same way that a mother might be more disturbed by an adult drag queen than by seeing her own six-year-old son wearing her dress and shoes.

Park's scenes are poised on the brink of some event, big or small. It could be the moment before someone gets their lights punched out, or it might be the moment before the waw-waw sound that accompanies a bad joke in a sitcom. The moment of his paintings is the moment of recognition, which might be why his characters tend to have their lips pursed, or are scowling (the lone smile in the current show is on the face of one of the drunken samurai).

Park's drawings have never been broadly displayed before, though one or two have been allowed to peek out among his finished paintings in past shows. At Howard House, five graphite-on-paper works have been hung, three of them studies for paintings in the show, allowing a look into Park's process. The drawings evince a lot of reworking, with many partially visible erasures. The final drawing tends toward simplicity, though, with strong lines and not much shading. His characters' facial expressions, a key part of the paintings, come out very strongly in the drawings, which nail precisely various mixtures of frustration, shock, puckishness, excitement, and anger.

Park uses his drawings to lay out the lines and composition of his paintings, before transferring the image by projecting it onto the canvas. His focus in painting the images is on precise color tone and shading. In his current work (all the paintings and drawings here are dated 1999), Park has restrained his color palette, working in largely monochromatic schemes with occasional pale colors added. The muted color scheme allows his careful shading to stand out; it also adds to the artificiality of the scenes, freezing the image like a photograph or a panel from a comic strip. When color does enter the compositions, it blends in rather than pops out: A golden penumbra surrounds our naked cowboy and Indian couple; two shades of aqua frame a lovers' spat between two cute kittens. His surfaces are smooth, with few visible brush strokes. The paintings are clean, careful, tight.

When I first saw these paintings, I was in the middle of a conversation with a couple of other painters about the limits of kitsch and irony and cheap pop-culture references in art. For some reason, our having this conversation in Joe Park's studio, with him within earshot, didn't bother us or him, and I couldn't tell why. His work seemed exempt from our argument, but is it not kitschy to have big-eyed children playing adult roles in these scenes? Is Park's mode not irony; is his art not pop? I haven't figured that one out yet, though I think the precision of Park's work, and the dryness of his wit has a lot to do with it. There's a care to his painting that seems the product not of self-protection -- the driving motivation behind easy irony -- but of precise conception. And there's nothing cheap or cloying about the paintings. Like the best work of John Currin or Karen Kilimnick, two more famed artists who paint serious pictures of silly subjects, Park's paintings invest cheap jokes with a kind of high tone that doesn't undercut the jokes, but takes the easy laughter out of them. They're still funny, but not via the standard progression: the recognition, the laugh, the release. They stay right at the moment before the laugh, the best place to be.

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