New York painter and School of Visual Art professor Travis Louie’s strange humans and mythological characters are both cute and grotesque. Done in the style of Victorian and Edwardian era portraits, Louie’s creatures may have traditional early 1900s clothing and postures but with an additional head, goat features, a toad companion or a few extra eyes. It is no surprise that each character has a backstory, some simple and some more elaborate, that come from daily writing and sketching in Louie’s journal (his 2009 book, Curiosities, combines both). Expect to find a brand new character created for Life Is Beautiful’s Crime On Canvas fine art show. We talked to Louie about peculiar people and the mystery of painting.
Where did your fascination with early 1900s portraits come from?
I grew up in a neighborhood where a lot of people had them in their houses. We didn’t have any in our house. My family was very superstitious. They didn’t take any pictures; very old country. They thought photography took a bit of their soul out but meanwhile all my European friends, they have a ton of photographs, old 19th-century photographs. I was always a little envious of that. Like, “Wow man, this is history. There is so much history in your, house how cool is that.” So, in a way, I make up my own photographic history even though I’m not related to any of these characters. Sometimes I do use stories from people that I know in the paintings but I’ll make up a different version of what happened. I write a story for every painting.
Can you tell me one of these stories?
One of the things that I like to talk about with these stories is how difficult it is for someone to come here from a different country and assimilate. That’s why we have little towns like a Koreatown or a Chinatown or even a Little Italy, it’s because people like to be around [others] with a similar culture and a similar background. Especially at the turn of the 20th century. There was a lot of xenophobia.
I write about how hard it was for these mythological creatures to get jobs. Some of them become entertainers or they work for carnivals. I have one character [Chester], who one morning woke up and he sprouted horns on top of his head. He couldn’t get a job so he ended up working at Coney Island at the Hell Gate exhibit [around] 1905. There were two gigantic exhibits in Coney Island [the other one] was called Dreamland, both of them have since burned down. Dreamland burned down in 1911. What was really popular in the old days was hellfire and brimstone stories. They would actually put on entire shows on what it would look like if you went to hell. That was a big deal back then.
Are you a history buff?
A little bit. I can’t help it. But I am [more] fascinated by people and what makes them tick. Why do they do the things that they do? What makes a person think like that? There is always a connection to the past somewhere.
What comes first, the image or the story?
Usually, it’s the story because I love a good story. That’s part of the human condition to create stories. Sometimes it’s to teach a lesson. Sometimes it’s to entertain or sometimes it’s both. You look at the patterns of storytelling and you pick up on them. How many horror movies have you seen where it’s the same story but the variables are a little different?
I would have never guessed you use acrylic paints. They look more like drawings.
I like the idea of a magic trick. I like when people sometimes don’t know what I’m doing. I always liked looking at artists like Jan Van Eyck or Maxfield Parrish. Even when I was much younger, I really loved Norman Rockwell. To an 8-year-old you have no idea what’s going on, you’re like “What, that’s paint?” But Jan Van Eyck did a painting called the Arnolfini Portrait, we know it’s oil paint now, but back then people were like “What the hell is going on?” And that’s kind of cool. I like the mystery … Music is like that, too.
When you walk down the street and you see different faces do you think people look like creatures?
That’s funny. I was just talking about that with one of my students. There was a meme of Benedict Cumberbatch and an otter and I thought it was so funny because he does kind of look like an otter.
You have a painting of a man that looks like a pug with his pet pug. I see that all the time.
I see that all the time, too. That’s what that painting is about. When you are around somebody all the time, not just your dog, but couples, after a while they just start looking like each other. When Jennifer Aniston was with Brad Pitt, didn’t, for like a minute, she started to get Brad Pitt features? What would Chandler think?
Do you get inspired by people you see?
I live in a weird town. There are people that walk around my town who are really strange … I imagine what it would be like to go to that person’s house and sit at the dinner table. I was standing behind this old scary looking guy at the deli section at the supermarket and he was complaining and complaining and complaining about an order and he was really convinced that he was right. He did that thing where people who think that they’re right, look to somebody else for acknowledgment. So he turns and looked at me, I see his face and it and it was horrifying. He had liver spots all over his face. Then I noticed the clothes he was wearing were 1920s clothes. I imagined him going back to his family of zombies. I did a painting of this zombie family sitting around a table on Sunday morning with the guy that I saw at the deli (pictured top).