All Articles
All Articles
CULTURE

Travis Louie

CULTURE

Travis Louie

Peek inside the artist's mind to learn what motivated his latest film noir inspired paintings

by Julie Wolfson
on 02 November 2011
Travis_Louie2.jpg Travis_Louie3.jpg

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.

Travis_Louie1.jpg
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.

Travis_Louie4.jpg Travis_Louie5.jpg
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

The CH25 is a showcase of creators and innovators from a broad range of disciplines who are currently working to drive the world forward.

Alex Kalman

The tiny museum in Manhattan that’s redefining museums

Read More
The mission is to put this small simple and powerful tool into the hands of as many people as possible

Vanessa Newman

Redesigning pregnancy for the post-gender generation with Butchbaby & Co.

Read More
I want my customers to feel comfortable and unchanged, in that becoming pregnant didn't take away from or compromise their identity

Tal Danino

The bioengineer who’s programming DNA to fight cancer

Read More
[Manipulating genes] is very new, people are just learning how to program these organisms

Melissa Kushner

Addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children in Malawi through microenterprise

Read More
Poverty is complicated, there is an increasing temptation and pressure in the development space to oversimplify things

Kegan Schouwenburg

Revolutionizing orthotics through 3D-printed insoles

Read More
What orthotics do is they effectively change the geometry of what your alignment is like

Tarren Wolfe

The next-generation appliance making kitchens greener—literally

Read More
Our goal is to provide food for everyone in the world, and the best place to start is in our very own community

Corinne Joachim Sanon

The chocolatier bringing social change to Haiti and bean-to-bar chocolate to the world

Read More
Seeing the poverty surrounding me and the lack of jobs and opportunity bothered me

Jonathan Sparks

Reinventing electronic music by inventing multi-disciplinary instruments

Read More
Recorded music is becoming so cheap, so the value of music is now in live performance

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Documenting the slow, troubling change in Braddock, Pennsylvania

Read More
I am not a journalist, I am a conceptual documentary artist using my visual expression for building narratives that are unseen and unheard

George Arriola and Monohm

An heirloom electronic for the post-smartphone era

Read More
We agonized during the design process as all hyper-obsessed craftspeople should

Cynthia Breazeal

How an emotional, empathetic robot named Jibo stands to revolutionize communication

Read More
The thing that's so provocative about social robots is that it's fundamentally a community technology

Eelke Plasmeijer

The locally driven restaurant that’s upending Balinese food culture

Read More
We really try to keep things simple and let the produce do the talking

Sabine Seymour

A future where smart clothes are as ubiquitous as zippers

Read More
In the future you will not buy a piece of 'functional' clothing without SoftSpot

Marcus Weller

Using technology to turn motorcycle helmet design on its head

Read More
I was taken aback both by the number of people that doubted it, and by the equally large number of people that got behind it

Douglas Riboud + Justin Guilbert

How a mission to create great coconut water led to a whole new way of doing business

Read More
We’ve made a conscious decision to be as transparent and honest as we can, and let people decide for themselves

Sarah Kunst

The entrepreneur single-handedly changing the landscape for women in tech

Read More
People who live on a planet that is half women but can never seem to find any when they need one, I have solved your problem

Roxie Darling

From un-shampoo to transgender identity, the NYC colorist boldly defining the next chapter of hair

Read More
Hair color is as much a science as it is a craft

Meredith Perry

How searching the Internet helped a 22-year-old invent wireless electricity

Read More
It’s not about where the information is, it’s about how you use the tools

Kathleen Supové

The NYC performance artist who’s radically reinventing the piano recital

Read More
I like pieces that are virtuosic, that show off the piano and what it can do, and are awe-inspiring

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Read More
Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes

The young filmmaker and non-profit founder who just wants people to follow their dreams

Read More
I feel confident and ready to accomplish so much more, the movement is on

Joshua Harker

Pushing the boundaries of sculpture with intricate 3D printing

Read More
My intent was to explore and depict the architecture of the imagination, to interpret and share forms evident in the mind’s eye

Dan Barasch + James Ramsey

A quest to make the future brighter—underground

Read More
We both share a passion for groundbreaking technology and a shared love of New York

Matt Kenyon

Fusing art and technology to disrupt concepts of corporate America

Read More
I want the work to live in the world and circulate, so it can generate more dialogue

Pauline van Dongen

The Dutch designer blazing the wearable technology path

Read More
I’m fascinated by concepts of change, movement, energy and perception; since they are closely related to the way we experience the world
Loading More...