By Michael Aushenker
Back in the day, rap stars such as Run-D.M.C. and L.L. Cool J liked to pose the rhetorical question, “Is it live?”
The rhetorical response, in the case of local artist John Park, would be a resounding “yes.”
Park can be found weekly at Copa D’Oro near Broadway and Second Street in Santa Monica (every Thursday night from 5:30 p.m.-1 a.m.) and at Venice’s Canal Club on Pacific Avenue (Fridays) painting easels in the middle of a thriving restaurant crowd.
“All these pieces were started live,” Park, surrounded by half-a-dozen massive canvases, told The Argonaut at CAVE Gallery on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, where his recent exhibit, Gorilla Warfare, came to a close earlier this month.
The Venice resident’s recent work depicts anime-listic anthropomorphic simian people with assault rifles and cartoony post-apocalyptic terrain reminiscent of the animated video “Tank Girl” that cartoonist and Gorillaz member Jamie Hewlett did for the trip-hop group’s “Clint Eastwood” video.
Park’s artwork wasn’t always this fun. Post-college, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) graduate found himself at a crossroads.
Today, Park, who currently has a painting at HIVE Gallery’s Super Villains show in downtown L.A. (naturally, he chose the Flash’s foe Gorilla Grodd), gets paid handsomely for his large mixed media-on-wood creations as well as his live art performances. He recently took a trip with CAVE co-owner Patrick Iaconis to Lightning in a Bottle in Temecula, where he painted at the arts/music festival amid 19,000 attendees.
Park layers his work with design elements and letter fonts that permeate the backdrop of his characters, which he sees as “Animal Farm”-style commentary on various societies, be it Cuba or Egypt or an African nation, in which governments are toppled by “a violent coup, followed by a military junta” and the shining hope for a democracy among its oppressed people has been dimmed to a faint glimmer. Originally, the Gorilla Warfare show, which represents his “frustration and indignation” with the world theater and the “mass incarceration of minority populations,” was going to be called Flower Power, a nod to the famous 1970s image of hippies sticking flowers in the gun barrels of occupying National Guards.
Park rattles off a list of contemporaries he admires. There are the evergreens such as lowbrow pop art surrealists Camille Rose Garcia, Mark Ryden, Robert Williams and David Choe, as well as some more obscure creators: Amsterdam-based artist Chris Barrons, who does Photoshop effects by hand, Kent Williams and Doze Green.
Park grew up in Columbus, OH. Back at RISD, he majored in painting and studied the classic artists – Da Vinci, Michelangelo – immersing himself in direct observation.
“At the time, I was an art snob,” he admitted. “I was there to get as many arrows in my quiver as I possibly could,” meaning formal, photo-realistic art experiences.
Park spent part of his education at the doorstep of said Renaissance masters, at the Palazzo in Rome. But upon graduating in 1996, he hit a Carrara marble wall.
“I got back and I was paralyzed,” said Park, who spent a year working at a Providence skate shop. “I didn’t know what direction to go.” Parks parents cut him off.
He followed his UCLA Law School student brother, Paul, out to Los Angeles, where he crashed for a while at Paul’s Westwood pad. That eventually curdled.
“He got sick of me,” Park said, smiling.
So he moved to West Hollywood, where Park got a job working at the art-house Laemmle Theatres on Crescent Heights and Sunset Boulevard, followed by a stint at the Art Store on Beverly Boulevard.
He then started teaching at Concord Prep High School in Santa Monica, which was shut down after an embezzlement scandal. His teaching gig morphed over to a stint at the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Monica, where he taught until 2011.
Park gives mad props to his business partner, Santa Monica-based artist Hans Haveron, whom he met years ago at Burning Man.
“We work really well together,” Park said. “He helped me unlock the whole thing.”
Park, Haveron, and a couple of mutual artist friends enjoy what they call the “Backyard Sessions;” they’ll get together in Park’s garden at about 2 in the afternoon, crack open a six-pack, and do some simultaneous painting.
“It motivates us to work,” Haveron said. “A few hours in which we hang out, listen to some music, not checking email again.”
Back in 2008, Park wasn’t so spontaneous. He took about 12 months to painstakingly create 12 tiny pieces for an exhibit at the trendy (but now defunct) Zero One Gallery in West Hollywood.
A painter son of creatives who grew up surrounded by artists, Haveron told The Argonaut that his basic advice to his buddy was to “get faster. He had this technique that was (holding him back from being prolific). I (urged him to) pump it out, to make money, do things quicker.”
Haveron half-jokingly pointed out how Park’s conservative Korean background and his Leo nature conspired to ensure that an uptight Park would “stick to one thing” and be obsessive on trying to master it. And Haveron suspects that Park’s 8-year-plus relationship with a former girlfriend, whom Haveron described as “high-maintenance,” also figured into Park’s lack of progress at that juncture in time.
“He just played video games non-stop,” Haveron recalled.
According to Park’s partner in art, it was losing his Concord job and his longtime girlfriend that re-birthed Park, his commitment to his art, and, soon after, helped him find his visual voice.
“I came from a hippie family in which you make sure you’re free,” said Haveron, who has been painting live since 1995 and who brought Park into the live painting fold. He believes this pressure-cooker approach to creating canvases has done a lot to loosen up Park.
The current output, Haveron observes, is Park “being himself. “Being a kid and kind of cartoonish, more whimsical.”
That said, “(Park) intellectually likes to discuss world events, space,” Haveron continued. “He’s good-natured and we always chat about politics, scientific discovery, etc. I like painting with him for that reason.”
Today, Park thrives on the live situation, which he said is still an edgy challenge and not rote. Today, things are cool between Park and his parents and sibling Paul, who now serves as the general consul of Cesar Chavez Foundation and lives in Monterey Park with Park’s newborn niece.
West L.A. residents have plenty of opportunities to catch Park’s work. In addition to his regular weekly gigs at Santa Monica’s Copa D’Oro and Venice’s Canal Club, Park spent 12 hours across two days painting up the wall space of Seoul Sausage, the much-anticipated trendy Little Osaka eatery just off Sawtelle Boulevard. And when he is not making art for a living, he spends his personal time with his artist buds and fashion designer Julie Hunter, his girlfriend of two years.
But come those weekly gigs at Copa D’Oro and Canal Club for Park, as Kool Moe Dee, another Old School MC, used to rap: “I go to work!”
To see Park paint live, visit Copa D’Oro, 217 Broadway, Santa Monica, and Canal Club, 2025 Pacific Ave., Venice.
For more on Park’s art, artbattles.com/artists/john-park.