By: John Lamb, INFORUM

FARGO – It’s was quite a week for Erik Hougen.

On Oct. 12, it was announced that the painter had been selected for a competition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The following week, he got married.

Since graduating from Minnesota State University Moorhead in 2006, Hougen’s star in the art world has been on a steady rise with a number of shows in New York, where he lives and works. This year alone he’s been in four group shows and had two solo shows.

His inclusion in a 2011 group show at the Bronx Museum of the Arts led to an inclusion in a New York Times write-up. While the piece was critical, saying his large facial portraits, “owe too much to Chuck Close,” it lauded his work for “a persuasive technical ambition.”

Hougen’s acceptance into the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery could pay off big. Of the 48 works accepted, the first-prize winner gets $25,000 and a commission to create a piece for the portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.

More than 1,000 artists working in a number of different mediums entered portraits for the triennial juried exhibition. Among the judges was Alec Soth, a Minneapolis-based photographer who has exhibited and lectured at the Plains Art Museum.

Hougen’s submission was a 57-by-80-inch watercolor on paper of his father, John, of Bismarck.

The day before his wedding in Fargo, the 30-year-old artist talked about his work.

What’s it like to be shown in the National Portrait Gallery?

It’s amazing. I like that about my work, knowing that its accessible not only to people really interested in art but also to the general public too. I think a lot of artists make work that speaks to a certain, specific group. When you step back from (my) watercolors, they’re photographic. But when you come close, you see all the drips and layers. So having that be something fun that everyone can engage with is like being accepted in a different way.

What do you think this will mean for your career?

It’s really exciting. There’s a lot of exposure with it. There’s a really serious fine art gallery scene in New York, and this falls into the realm of more public art. With the focus being on portraits, it’s a lot more accessible to the public. I’ve already been contacted by people.

How big of an influence is Chuck Close?

He’s always been a big influence. The Walker (Art Center in Minneapolis) owns two of his most fabulous paintings. So that was a huge influence, but it’s more about process. What I do is use watercolor and break photos or videos into CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and key, or black – the color model for printing) layers like a digital printer. … I paint watercolor, very, very transparent washes of the yellows, magentas, blacks and cyans.

Are you primarily a portrait artist?

Yes and no. I kind of started off this process not doing portraits, but have been doing primarily portraits for two or three years. It’s something I’ve really had fun doing. I’m working on something else now.

So what are you working on now?

I’m painting these scenes from videos from my everyday life, being heavily influence by cinema and creating this pseudo-narrative.

Do you have a favorite piece from the National Portrait Gallery?

It’s been so long. I remember there being a really cool portrait of Paul McCartney.