Woe is the artist who paints portraits. What pose, where the eyes are directed, standing vs sitting vs something between vs neither, background or no background, what background? A great portrait and you have Mona Lisa; a bad one and you can’t even tell who it is.
That said, not many sit for portraits any more. Instead, families, prom couples, and high school girls going for their glamor shot make a beeline to Target and Sears for their photo portraits. They all have different motivations: to preserve a moment in time; to boast their virility; to fool others; to fool themselves. And yet, the effect of sitting for the photo is remarkably similar to sitting for a portrait: an Awkward Family Photo. Faux austerity, grim smiles, absolutely no smizing, and a dirty, speckled blue curtain. Perhaps now is the time to consider how the Future You would want to remember the Current You. Perhaps with, say, a little more color?
Hello, Katherine Chiu.
Katherine is, as you can see, a portrait painter. She happens to live in Los Angeles, and also happens to be kicking off Metblogs Locals, a series in which we feature a totally awesome [insert occupation here] and talk to them about their work. We’ll also ask them to name a few of their favorite colleagues, sort of a “journalistic pyramid scheme,” as Kev-O so eloquently described it a few weeks ago during our impromptu Metblogs powwow. So, altogether now, Hi, Katherine Chiu!
It’s fitting that our feature is on someone whose work features others. But, Katherine is not just any portrait painter. Her work is whimsy but grounded, personal but inviting. The harbinger of all things over(t)ly hip, Daily Candy, opined: “[E]ach painting captures your family dynamics in a fairy tale-esque tableau.” In other words, this ain’t your great-great-great-great-great grandma’s watercolor portrait.
Here’s why I like Katherine Chiu’s work, and why I wanted to talk to her more: her portraits are very, very engaging. And serene. As if her subjects stopped for just long enough for Katherine to capture the warm glow of their essence. I look at her work and smile and think. It could be that I’m projecting much too much, but other portraits strike me as interesting only to the people who know the subject (if that), or the subjects are just too intimidating, staring at me with their families, their fences, their waxy fruit. Everyone in Katherine’s work is friendly, self-assured, and, yes, a little arty. Just like the very best parts of you.
Representing one’s subject and client accurately even as they are transformed into pieces of art must be difficult. And yet it is this challenge of representation that appeals to Katherine. Most art is intimidating, she points out, either because of mental class barriers that make us afraid of Things Rich People Like (to Own), or because the artist intended the work to be abstract and distant (in her words, “Fuck hipster art.”). Portraits, on the other hand, are “relate-able, instantly accessible, more familiar.” Plus, “People are so interesting.” Along the lines of screwing the pretentious ungangliness that is hipster art, Katherine represents her subjects in a way that opens, not slams shut, the door to viewers. So, while her client list includes certain unnamed directors who directed certain famous movies about certain famous bat persons, it also lists your neighbor. She’s doing to art what Domaine547 and K&L Wine Merchants are doing with wine: de-snobbing. I want to drink their wine; I want to meet her subjects. Also, I want the color blocked rug in the above picture, and the kid on the left’s robot shirt. Details, details.
Katherine’s one of those terribly lucky people who knew what she wanted to do since she was a wee toddler. A year after the terrible twos and a year before starting kindergarten, Kathy began drawing. Then, she didn’t stop. While most of us high school seniors completed incredibly outdated occupational survey tests printed in Courier New (the answer to my test was: pilot, librarian, politician. Umm..), Katherine knew her answer in advance and went straight to the Art Center College of Design after high school. “It was a little intimidating” both because of the caliber of her classmates and their ages: the majority were post-college graduates, attending as a sort of post-doctoral degree. But, talent knows no age. BusinessWeek featured her student work; after graduation, she landed design and graphic art positions at Disney and Junior Drake. She recently left the corporate world and their stuffy dress codes (oh, the bane of that world, really) to pursue her own career in art and, especially, portrait painting.
Whether the client wants to give the painting as the best present ever, or because h/she wants a unique family memento that is both practical and artful, the process of constructing a portrait is the same. After an initial discussion about how to actualize someone’s sense of self onto a canvas, Katherine pulls out the camera. Ironically, then, the process essentially begins with photographs. A lot of them. “I take 40-50 photos of the subject, then take pictures of the environment, or anything else I find interesting, and use that as inspiration for a background scene,” she explained to me. (True to form, she ended up taking about a dozen pictures of my dog. “That dog is so cool!”) She then takes the photos back to her space, deconstructs and reconstructs, and produces a portrait more whimsical than any static Photoshopped 8×10, and more lively than any formal, stuffy sit-down session. This is the 2010s, people; actually sitting for a portrait painting is so 1800s.
The most interesting portrait she was asked to do? “I had two adult clients who wanted a portrait of them as they were children,” she said. Lacking a DeLorean outfitted with a flux capacitator, she instead analyzed photos of the two as young strapping kids. The clients were very happy.
In addition to portraits, Katherine’s busy on another project: GlamKat. A joint project between her and another Katherine (Wang, who does crafts worthy-of-Unique-LA), GlamKat features her not-strictly-portrait works. As you can see, Vampire Weekend, if they’re going to do the portrait route, really should have her do their next album cover.
And, because we want to spread the love here at Metblogs, I asked Katherine to name 5 (or 6, as it turned out) local artists she respects and admires. She happily obliged, with the caveat that some of these are her friends. It’s nice to have friends you respect and admire, isn’t it?
- Adam Alaniz “paints creatures and ethereal worlds. He has two beautiful boys, and I think his child-like wonder and happiness really shows through in his work.”
- Jared Andrew Schorr “does these awesome intricate paper cut outs (can you imagine him sitting at his desk with an exacto-knife going half blind cutting out tiny triangles?). He is another artist who is not afraid to be happy and sweet.”
- Ken Garduno “does these ink drawings that are very psychological and humorous. His work really crosses lines, everything from comics to gallery to editorial.”
- James Jean. “But this is too obvious. Everyone loves James Jean. CAUSE HE’S A GOD.” [I would be dishonest if I too was all over James Jean, but, like a rerun of Friends on NBC during the summer of 1998, this is new to me.].
- Andrew Hem (his website is I Drew Him – heh). Kathy says: “He’s really influenced by graffiti and his Cambodian background. His work is urban, dark and sweet. And his technique is off the charts. SO MUCH TALENT. I want to drink from his spoon.”
- Saelee Oh. “Not afraid to be girly. Also does paper cut-outs and sculptures. And she seems like a dang cool chick.”
Katherine frequently exhibits her work and donates her pieces to various charity events all over the city. She’s actually showing a piece next Friday evening, April 23rd over at Tinlark in Hollywood. Check it out and maybe talk to her if you want to see yourself immersed in a different kind of local color. Whatever you do, you’ll be leaving content with a smile.