As a young boy growing up in Queens, Travis Louie would roam the hallways of his friends’ houses gazing longingly at their vintage family photographs, realizing the lack of pictures of previous generations of his own Chinese-American family. Years later when Louie’s drawing career transitioned into painting characters inspired by film noir and German Expressionism, he realized that in some way he was creating his own virtual family history. Only this family, clad in Victorian and Edwardian garb, had all sorts of ogres, monsters and insects crawling and climbing about.
We spoke with Louie at his studio in upstate New York while he was painting a man with a giant Cane Toad on his head—an image that will soon be on view at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles, along with several other unique pet-and-owner portraits—and the artist revealed where his love of storytelling, surprise, and humor comes from.
When was the first time you remember getting a reaction for something you drew?
I was in the second grade. They gave me some crayons for some busy work while they were testing other kids. I started drawing. It wasn’t a great drawing, but it was what I drew that kind of freaked the teacher out. I drew my memories of a Senate hearing that I had seen on public TV Channel 13. It was film footage of the McCarthy era. What had compelled me to watch it was that so many of my grandfather’s favorite actors were in there. I drew the people at a table with a bunch of microphones. The teacher asked me, “What is that?” and I said, “That’s the Senate hearings.” Then she wanted to talk to my parents. The drawing did not look like McCarthy, Humphrey Bogart, Danny Kaye, Lauren Bacall or anyone else that was there. I did not know why the hearing was happening, it did not make any sense to me, but I wanted to know what it was all about.
Were you more of a “scared of everything” or “scared of nothing” kind of kid?
I was afraid of people. I remember one time I was on the subway with my mom. While the train was moving, she let go of my hand for a second and someone else grabbed my hand. That was always really creepy to me. My mother lit into this guy like you wouldn’t believe.
With so much of your work being influenced by German Expressionism, film noir, Victorian portraits, Edwardian times, side-shows, oddities and more, how did your style develop?
Growing up, I used to go to my friends’ and neighbors’ houses. Their families had these great old photographs. I thought, “What’s going on that they had these things?” The reason why we didn’t have any in our family was that Chinese people are very superstitious and did not like having their pictures taken, especially in the 1890s. I don’t know if many cameras were that available. I have not seen that many photos of older Chinese people from that era. I think there was a little bit of envy. So now with my work it’s almost like I am making my own ancestors. They just happen to be monsters.
I love the look of those old movies and am interested in cinematography. I love old German Expressionist films. I did not come across them until later. As a kid I watched whatever was on for the Movie of the Week on Channel 9, which were mostly gangster movies and noir pictures. As I got older, I noticed that the noir directors had been looking at the German Expressionist films. If you look at Citizen Kane there are a lot of shots that look like they came out of the movie Metropolis including the shots of the gigantic door. I started watching more old movies to see were they got the lighting from.
Can you talk about the materials you use and the process you go through to get to the point where it is hard to see any brush strokes?
I use kind of a weird watercolor technique with transparent layers of things, one on top of the other, [and I think about] how far back you can go and how dark it is possible to make something. There are transparent washes of acrylic paint over and over again. A lot of it is rubbed out. Underneath that there is a lot of graphite to create a very smooth, continuous tone. I learned to do that because I used to work for a photo re-toucher.
Your new paintings feature large-winged insects and spiders on the heads of your portrait subjects. Do you see these monsters, creatures and animals in your everyday life?
Sometimes I dream them up. This particular show was influenced from a photograph that I saw on the back of a book about how to care for tarantulas. I was in a pet store and I came across this book and I thought, that’s kind of odd. I have a pet tarantula at home. I am looking at this book and it’s pretty informative. I flip it over and see there’s an author photograph on the back. It is the weirdest author photograph I have ever seen. He’s dressed in a powder blue tuxedo, like the kind they are wearing in Carrie. Next to him is his pet tarantula in its enclosure with a prize-winning ribbon attached to it. I looked at it and thought, “That is the craziest thing.” There was a pet show with tarantulas in it? How do you judge that? What’s the criteria? That’s when I decided to do a series of paintings of people with unusual pets. The one I am painting right now is of a man with his Cane Toad. The toad is about the size of a small pig.
What else are you working on?
I also have a bust coming out by Shinbone. We will have one at the gallery during the show. It comes in a wood crate. From the back it looks like Beethoven and when you flip it around it’s my Uncle 6 Eyes.
Travis Louie’s show opens on 12 November and will be on view at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles until 10 December.
170 S. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036