Painter Tim Bitel (2007) By painter Joe Park. Courtesy of Lawrimore Project

When Timothy Fichtner had his portrait made by a leading Seattle artist, he did it up. He threw a private party, invited everybody who was anybody, played "You're So Vain" on repeat, and, when a buzz had settled across the room, finally unveiled the painting.

Sponsored
Deck the halls with the Seattle Symphony’s joyous Holiday Pops concerts!
Join conductor Stuart Chafetz and Broadway star N'Kenge for this dazzling program full of yuletide cheer.

"I mean, we need to go back to that," artist Joe Park says when he recalls the evening, referring to the courtly tradition of dramatic unveilings of portraits, followed sometimes by gasps of shock (Goya's portrait of his ugly queen comes to mind).

That was 2001, and the Fichtner painting was Park's first taste of commissioned portraiture. Being paid to make a likeness couldn't be more different from Park's signature work. He is known for paintings that derive entirely from his imagination, and are, themselves, imaginary environments. His 2005 survey at the Frye Art Museum, Moon Beam Caress, was full of anthropomorphic animals in colorful settings influenced by anime and cinema—a hardened factory-working bunny on a smoke break, a domestic bear doing the ironing in the basement.

Which is why it was surprising to see hard-edged, sepia-toned portraits of real, recognizable people (Austrian artist Erwin Wurm and San Francisco dealer Rena Bransten) by Joe Park on the walls of Howard House last year. Even more surprising, there was a note with the portraits, advertising the artist's services for anyone interested in commissioning him.

It seemed about as likely as a note saying Park will design tattoos.

That's an exaggeration, but only slight. Few artists do formal portraiture-for-hire these days. It's an antiquated practice, something most artists—and sitters—consider the bailiwick of the Sears studio or some fusty boardroom. Park isn't particularly public about his portrait practice. He sees it as somewhat separate from his "regular" paintings. Since 2006, when he began working on portraits in earnest, he has made about 40 of them. None of those—even the ones that weren't commissioned but were instead made for Park's own reasons (he estimates about a half dozen are commissions)—will appear in Park's solo show of new works at Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco this September.

What are his reasons for this semiprivate sideline? Commissions bring money, but Park says he would continue making portraits, and taking commissions for them, even if it weren't for the money. He started making portraits when he was trying to experiment with new painting techniques—smoky swirls and shadowy cubistic shapes—and finding that his old imaginative process was failing him. He needed real objects to measure his experimental images against, and "I thought the ultimate thing was individuals," he says. That's when he hung his public shingle at Howard House: open for business.

When he chose subjects, he deliberately picked people he knew, and who were generally recognizable in the art world, so that the paintings could be at once intimate and public: curators Michael Darling, Chiyo Ishikawa, and Eric Fredericksen; artists Gretchen Bennett and Alfred Harris; dealer Kirsten Anderson. Seattle Art Museum commissioned a portrait of its departing board president, Susan Brotman, and the museum acquired it for its permanent collection.

Park found himself hooked on portraiture as more than a practice device. He was drawn to the challenge of finding a way to maintain his own vision without losing the very real, live subject. He had been wondering about this conundrum ever since he noticed the stiffness in one of David Hockney's very few commissioned portraits, a majestically chilly 1971 picture of Sir David Webster, head of the Royal Opera House. Was the sitter a stifling personality, or was it being a brush for hire that froze up the picture?

"That's one of the things I wanted to know," Park says in an interview in his studio. "I like the idea of acting—the idea that you walk out onstage and rehearse what you're going to do when nobody's there, but then, being able to do the exact same casual walk and act when everyone's watching. I'm not sure I'm totally there."

Portraiture has been stretched beyond the point of recognition in the last century, and plenty of portraits bear no resemblance to their ostensible subjects. But there's an emotional charge between artist and subject when the artist intends to be at least somewhat faithful to the subject. Hockney, for instance, ups the ante by setting up a mirror for his subjects so that they can see what he's painting. (This has, reportedly, led to some funny arguments between Hockney and his father.)

Park calls that extra electricity in the air "a little accompaniment of worry when you raise your brush." While he says it would be "bad for the paintings" to capitulate to somebody else's idea about how they should be portrayed, he nevertheless walks the line by inviting outside forces into his studio. Where he used to have total control over his (inanimate) source materials, now he has to contend with them. When Park ran into the German painter Tim Eitel recently, Eitel said to Park, "I saw the portrait." That's all he said. Park has no idea what this means.

Another subject, Judy Wagonfeld, whose husband commissioned her portrait, delayed picking up her visage for weeks because she was worried that she wouldn't like it. "That's how crazy portraiture is," Park says. (Wagonfeld did like it, in fact, and had this praise for Park for doing portraits at all: "He's really putting himself on the line.")

The effects of studying the discipline of portraiture are already appearing in Park's still-lifes. Mounted on the easel at his home studio now is an unfinished scene, based on a photograph Park took, picturing a bouquet of pink roses in a grocery-store case that are lit from the left by a neon tube. The painting is full of the same cubistic geometry and wild shading that he was practicing in his portraits, and it includes a reflection of Park's body as he photographs the glass case.

Support The Stranger

Unlike in his past works, these paintings have an aliveness that can only come from observation, and a tension fueled by Park's new dialogue with things he can't control. He intends, he says, to expand the portrait practice, from the current head shots to full-body works, and from photographed subjects to live sittings. "It looks like my whole career's done in reverse," he says, "where I'm working toward observation." recommended

jgraves@thestranger.com