MICHAEL HORWITZ has found an ingenious solution to the artist's perennial quandary of how to get exposure: He gets his subjects to promote his work for him. His portraits pop up on social media all the time, used as Facebook profile photos or tagged on Instagram. And it doesn't hurt that he gives his portraits away for free. Or free-ish—he'll draw your portrait for the price of a conversation. He sets up at a variety of places: friends' parties, Rotture, and First Thursday at the Museum of Contemporary Craft. In September, for the second year in a row, he'll be drawing portraits at the TBA Festival—keep an eye out for his neon beanie, "wilted" tank top, and pouch of colored pencils.
This summer I visited Horwitz's studio at the Pony Club Gallery (625 NW Everett, #125), which he joined after graduating from PNCA. Horwitz's work table explodes with whimsical creativity: sticker sheets litter his desk, along with renderings of Courtney Love outfits, Lana Del Rey sweaters, and drawings of wigs.
When asked how he got involved in portraiture, Horwitz is quick to credit friends and mentors. "Anthony Hudson—who's drag performer Carla Rossi—was doing a party this past summer at Rotture. I was so nervous, but I sat down, and people kept coming. I felt like I had one of the best nights of my life."
Horwitz's drawings recall Alice Neel, one of the foremost 20th-century portraitists. The casual poses, stylized body distortions, and tender awkwardness of his portraits evoke Neel if she'd had a proclivity for pink, while his patterned, colored lines are reminiscent of local figure-centric artist Robert Hanson.
Narratives and humor are threaded throughout all of Horwitz's work. He used to work in New York as an editor at Marvel Comics, which was "like a dream come true," but "bumpy toward the end, after Disney purchased them. I learned that I didn't want to be in an office doing work for a huge corporation. I wanted to be producing." He also had a brief stint as an intern in the fashion world, which he describes as a Devil Wears Prada experience, "without the free clothes." The illustration and comics background still stick.
He recently did his portrait project at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, during a marathon reading of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," which ties into one of his personal projects, the exhaustively funny zine My Boyfriend Walt Whitman. And although you can catch him doing portraits, Horwitz has recently moved toward a more sustained body of work, in particular a series called Arabesque, which was on display at the Museum of Modern Life this summer. A second iteration of it will be on display at the PDX Contemporary Window Project (925 NW Flanders) through September 27. It features a war between ballerinas and stereotypes of Arab men, with a lot of pink and a vibrant color palette.
"A lot of it is dealing with my own indecision about what I think about the conflict in the Middle East," Horwitz explains. "Being raised Jewish, you were meant to treat Arabic people as though they were a million-year-old enemy, which doesn't really allow for any change of understanding."
In a weird twist of events, I sat for a portrait session at Horwitz's studio: I was profiling him, while he was profiling me. He asks questions to make the sitter comfortable, and so asked me about my day job and my family. At the end of the session, Horwitz handed me my portrait. I was amazed at the subtleties in the picture, which has all the idiosyncrasies of his style. He picked up on the fidgets of my hands, a mole on my cheek, a summer highlight in my hair. Later in the day, I ran into a friend on the streets. "I just got my portrait drawn!" I chirped. "By Michael Horwitz?" she asked. "Where was he set up today?"