Travis Louie: Strange Discoveries

The master creature conjurer and visual storyteller brings his strange new characters to Los Angeles

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In Travis Louie‘s imaginary world strange creatures and humans exist side-by-side—and are even sometimes morphed together into one. While much of his work offers a fictional recreation of the family portraits that do not exist in his superstitious Chinese American family, his new show “Strange Discoveries” was inspired by the “weird things” Louie discovered after his father passed away. “I won’t say exactly what because some of it is kind of personal, but it was like finding out someone had a secret identity,” shared Louie. “My dad was a dreamer who never got to live out his dreams.”

In a method learned while working for a photo re-toucher, Louie employs a watercolor technique with transparent washes of acrylic paint, all with layers of graphite underneath. With each series of paintings, Louie reveals the inner workings of his imagination and the characters and creatures who live there. “Although there have been times that the character comes before the story, I often come up with a simple idea for a story, and then the character kind of develops from there,” explained Louie. “I sketch out what the character would look like and then if it is strong enough, I move forward to a painting.”


In “Strange Discoveries” a man stands next to a massive insect flopped onto its back. He gazes out looking concerned, but not afraid. Louie describes the story in this painting in great detail. “In late summer of 1894, Clark Stephenson heard a loud noise in the middle of the night. It sounded like one of the trees lost a large branch and it struck the house. He decided he was too tired to investigate the noise and went back to sleep. The next morning, he made a startling discovery. An enormous insect attached itself to the left side of his house, just below the chimney. It was motionless and appeared to have passed on, but its claws were embedded into the wood siding on the house and it was difficult to pry it loose. He quickly dispatched a small work crew to remove it. It was then brought to the attention of the Royal Entomology Society, which held a special meeting to discuss this incredibly rare find. As a photograph was taken of it with Mr. Stephenson standing proudly next to it for scale, a loud gasp was heard from the members in attendance when they made the discovery that the specimen was really just the exoskeleton and a giant insect was probably flying around London.”

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Another painting in the soon-to-open show tells the story of a Miss Sophie, a young woman who upset the people around her by having an uncontrollable urge to say inappropriate things, especially at church and funerals. A local tinkerer created a special helmet for her that he claimed could block “evil thought rays.” Miraculously, it seemed to work. According to Louie, “Despite becoming an object of ridicule for many years, she wore that helmet proudly day and night. Eventually it became fashionable for ladies to wear unmanageable headgear during the late 1890s and she blended right in.”

“Strange Discoveries” opens on tomorrow, 9 November, at Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles and will be on view until 7 December 2013.

Images courtesy of Travis Louie