Travis Louie’s paintings exist in a place where memory and fantasy collide. In them, mythical creatures and sideshow freaks strike formal poses in what appear to be antique family photographs. In form, the images are familiar: they look like the kind of sepia-tinted pictures you might find in a flea market bargain bin, or in a shoebox in your grandmother’s attic. In content, they are otherworldly, depicting creatures from mythology, comic books, B-movies, and Louie’s own imagination.
“I have always been interested in monsters. I think there is something about the mystery behind those stories of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, the yeti, and even those scientifically confirmed ‘monsters’ from the natural world, like the giant squid, which have been of great interest to me from when I was a small child. I must also mention those mythological creatures from many different cultures and the interpretation of ‘monsters’ on the silver screen as a great influence on my upbringing as a monster maker of sorts. It excites the imagination today as much as it did when I was five years old watching stop motion Ray Harryhausen sequences, Godzilla terrorizing those Japanese sailors in the original black and white movie, or Count Orlok’s menacing shape in the silent Nosferatu . . . All viewed on the local broadcast stations. My parents liked to use the television as a babysitting device.”
In addition to these influences, Louie cites “Charles Addams cartoons for the New Yorker, old magic posters, German Expressionist films, film noir movies, sideshow posters, [and] Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine” as having an impact on his style. And he likes to people-watch, taking an almost anthropological interest in the human variety on display in his home of New York. His interest in human diversity takes on a uniquely American, democratic quality. New York is a city where everyone is from somewhere else, and everyone is weird to someone. “I like to go to county fairs, carnivals, conventions, etc. I spend a bit of my off time in the busy streets of New York just observing. I look for interesting people and write down little descriptions for characters based on what I see… I often try to imagine how they would live their day to day lives, what kind of occupation they might have, what kind of origin.”
Writing is almost as important to Louie as painting. The characters in his images often come with elaborate back stories, which serve to humanize them and make them more personally relatable, despite their monstrous appearances. “I’m always writing. I will eventually write a few short stories out of some of these vignettes. A few times, the stories came after the painting was done, but that doesn’t happen often. Most of the time, the back stories to my characters come first. They start out as simple descriptions and then I expand them if I think they need to be expanded.”
It is important to Louie to humanize his creations, so they are more than generic monsters. “I don’t want my characters to be monstrous or evil. I would rather concentrate on how their unusual qualities create humorous interactions with humans in my stories. My characters are more humanistic and just have curious circumstances. At times they represent my veiled commentary on racism. I approach them as beings that are trying to live their lives like anyone else despite the obvious differences they have from humans. When I was a boy, I was on a public bus with my mom as she was trying to get an interview for a job when some of the passengers gave her a really hard time about our ethnicity. It was the first time I encountered adults who were like that… It’s understandable to not feel connected to things or people that are different than us, but highly irrational to be antagonistic toward such things.”
I asked Louie why he found the look of antique photographs so appealing. He suggested that part of his motivation for recreating that look was nostalgia for an age when it was easier to be “taken in” by a fantastic image. In an era of ubiquitous Photoshop, our eyes are trained to be sceptical. We forget there was a time when a photo was considered nearly irrefutable proof of something’s existence. “There’s a quality of 19th century photography that represents a simpler time. When these pictures were taken, there was still this innocence that allowed people to be fooled by simple photo retouching and double exposure techniques in ‘spirit’ photography or those wonderful photographs of ‘fairies’ staged and taken by Elsie Wright in 1917. Before photography we only had eyewitness accounts and physical evidence. When I paint my characters with a resemblance to tin types and cabinet cards, it allows them be more plausible in the mind’s eye.”
Another aspect of Louie’s interest in antique photography stems from his own family history. Louie, who is of Chinese descent, has no photographic record of his ancestors: “There are no such photographs of my ancestors in existence . . . and I think on a psychological level, I might paint these characters to make up for that somehow.”
Louie’s work is a testament to the importance of imagination. Oddly, for a painter, Louie worries about imagination’s prospects in a visually-saturated culture. “I think people don’t read enough and have short attention spans. Technology is developing so fast and people are losing the ability to have an imagination. Reading opens up our ability to visualize things in our minds instead of having them created for us in video games and movies. I think [technology] eliminates that sense of wonder. Let’s face it, having an imagination allows us to think in different directions when trying to find solutions, creative solutions.”
So, take a look at Travis Louie’s paintings. Then go and dream up some monsters of your own.
At first glance, Paul Kaptein’s collection of hand-carved wooden sculptures might appear as though it was conceived in the deepest recesses of his unconscious mind. But in fact, his warped creations were born out of a very deliberate and conscious desire to depict an unstable realism – one that represents the dynamic relationship between form and emptiness. We spoke to Kaptein about his inspiration, the role of symbolism in his work and the relationship with his medium. G—Wood is a dominant medium in your work. What type of narrative do you think it creates? PK—I think it assumes a narrative that predates the work, and commences a commentary around time and timelessness. Wood has a universal presence that speaks to everything from wooden spoons and chopping boards, to alter prices, totems and architecture – it’s like the backbone of culture in a way. It acknowledges that change is an inherent part of the work – that it may one day become something else. For now it is sculpture. Hopefully. G—Much of your work is sculpture based. What are the advantages and limitations of sculpture? PK—I’m interested in being in the world and therefore tend to have a very visceral response
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