Anna Park’s Charcoal Drawings of the End of the World Have Earned Her Fans From Top Curators to KAWS. At 25, She’s Just Getting Started
Four museums bought work out of Anna Park's sold-out debut solo show. What is it about her art that has captivated so many tastemakers?
Anna Park’s drawings have the feel of a heady, debaucherous last supper. Delirious figures with grasping hands emerge from crowded environments full of American pomp and pageantry—barbecues, tea parties, game shows—their bodies fragmenting in angular, abstract explosions like shattered glass.
“It’s humanity at its finest,” Park said during a recent visit to her Bushwick studio. “It’s not pretty a lot of the time, but I never want the work to be a jab. It’s more that we’re all in this together.”
This sense of humans embroiled in one last, pre-apocalyptic gasp of hedonism has tapped into the zeitgeist so effectively that Park has found herself, just one year out of art school, among the most in-demand young artists working today. At just 25 years old, she sold out her debut solo show at New York’s Half Gallery earlier this year. Four of her vast charcoal compositions went to major museum collections: the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the ICA Miami, the MFA Houston, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Another work from the Half Gallery show will be featured in a group show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2022. Her latest show at Blum & Poe in Tokyo also sold out, with works going from $40,000 to $58,000.
Park’s trajectory hit hyperspeed even before the world went into lockdown, when she drew the notice of a couple of high-profile art-world aficionados. In 2019, the artist KAWS spotted her drawings at her alma mater, the New York Academy of Art, bought one of them, and then posted her work on Instagram, sending droves of his followers to her account.
Within a week or two of that meeting, Half Gallery owner Bill Powers saw the same grad school work, leading him to put her in a group show in 2020 and giving her a solo show in 2021. She also appeared in a group show at New York’s Drawing Center in 2020, and spent much of her pandemic year working on a commission to draw the poster design for David Fincher’s latest film, Mank. (An art director working on the film had noticed her work online a while back, when her drawings were more figurative, and proposed her for the project.)
Beyond the strength and ambition of Park’s work—or, as Powers put it, “the competency of her hand and the madness of her compositions”—its relationship to the cultural moment is what has sparked the imagination of so many. “It’s interesting when the intent of a piece and the chronology of the culture and the biography of the artist converge,” Powers told Artnet News. He was talking in particular about Park’s Hero Mentality (2021), a feverish blowout of stars, stripes, and big smiles that is a heavily abstracted take on a 4th of July barbecue scene. The work was acquired by the High Museum.
“When she made that drawing she was here with a Korean passport,” and the country was deep in election turmoil, Powers said. “By the time the show was up she had become an American citizen. And by April, when we showed the painting, the Biden administration had declared his plan to have 100 million shots in 100 million arms so that we can all gather together again by July 4th. So her notion of making a 4th of July barbecue is pretty loaded.”
Painting “the Chaos of Our Lives”
That alignment between Park’s work and the cultural moment constitutes a significant technical achievement, according to Claire Gilman, the Drawing Center’s chief curator, who critiqued Park’s grad school work at the New York Academy a few years back. “She has an ability to use line to match the aggressive, emotional overload that comes out of her work—this feeling of chaos and rage that reflects the chaos of our lives. She’s able to express that in every dimension, in the subject matter and her use of line.”
“I think we all feel a little frantic and out of control right now,” Gilman added. “Some of that is linked to social media because we’re sucked into this constant demand on our attention from the digital world. Park’s work is very universal in that sense.”
Inevitably, commercial shifts have also played a role in the demand for Park’s work. The Asian market, according to Powers, “is less nationalistic than it used to be 20 or 30 years ago,” and a younger, highly mobile generation see themselves in artists of the Asian diaspora. Asian American and Asian Canadian artists like Park, Lily Wong, Dominique Fung, and Matthew Wong are gaining significant traction in China and beyond. (Around 50 percent of Park’s exhibition at Blum & Poe in Tokyo sold to Asian buyers, according to the gallery.)
Additionally, Powers says that while people used to think of works on paper as studies or second class material, the success of artists like Park or Alina Perez, another fast-rising star in the medium, has proven that hierarchy no longer holds.
“I don’t want to pigeonhole people by their medium or ethnicity,” Powers added, “but I think you can’t help but imagine these are factors in how people are looking at work and thinking about it.”
Born in South Korea in 1994, Park came to the U.S. with her family as a child—briefly to California before they settled in Salt Lake City, Utah. She picked up an early mentor in art teacher Bruce Robertson, who saw one of her drawings at a mall art fair and called up her elementary school to recruit her for his weekend figure drawing classes.
“In hindsight, he changed my life,” Park said, teaching her both “drawing and tenacity.” Those classes put her on course to pursue art schools in California—she had ideas of becoming an animator for a studio like Pixar—and New York.
She ultimately settled at Pratt to study illustration and animation but left for New York Academy of Art when she found herself pulled toward fine art and seeking a traditional art school education. There, she studied with one of her drawing idols, Michael Grimaldi, and gravitated toward “the quickness, the forgivingness” of charcoal. Cecily Brown’s art was important to her in arriving at her current, frenetic, semi-abstract style—she would often draw with catalogues of her work out or listen to interviews with the artist while she worked.
Now, one year out of grad school, she works in a roomy studio in Bushwick, in frenzied bouts of activity, typically completing a work in two or three weeks. “I tend to work manically,” she said, drawing from found images and memories and working intuitively, “then edit myself down.”
The Americana motif in her work comes from her experiences in Utah, while “the chaotic, suffocating side comes from New York.” She doesn’t mean that as an insult: New York may be a decadent place, but she enjoys the overstimulation even as it overwhelms her. (The same could be said of the way many viewers feel about her art.) “Environment tends to affect my work a lot,” Park said. “As work piles up in my studio, the new work becomes a lot more stuffed.”
In her Blum & Poe show, there is a vast composition depicting a cowboy tumbling from his horse, rendered in her angular Futurist style. With the title Mind Over Matter (2021), the work seems to speak to Park’s larger goal: to reveal something of the illusory nature of American identity.
At 25, she’s aware of the danger of early success limiting your ability to move in new directions. “I’m so beyond grateful that I can do this every day, but definitely with more eyes on you it’s scarier to take risks,” she said. She intends to spend the next six to eight months dedicated solely to experimenting with her work, possibly “finding a new element to introduce to her work, material-wise or surface-wise,” or perhaps to explore her Korean heritage in her art.
“At the beginning you have to say yes to everything,” she noted, “but artists talk about the power of saying no.”
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