Thursday, April 23, 2009

Travis Louie's "Strange Grooming Habits"

The fantastic Travis Louie needs no introduction to most folks who drop by here, I'm sure – he's been prominent in the pop surrealism scene for some time, and his paintings are impossible to forget.

"The Curious Ginseng Man"

Though the uniqueness and craftsmanship of Travis' work is widely recognized, I think the casual viewer can be distracted by those superlative qualities into missing some of the work's nuance – because what is interesting about his paintings is not the monstrousness of his subjects, but the humanity shining out from behind their strange visages. Currently, Travis is putting the finishing touches on his next solo show, "Strange Grooming Habits," which will be unveiled at Copro Gallery on May 9th.

"Sarah and Emmett"

Recently, Travis has begun to explore some previously uncharted territory. He's been painting beautiful, magnetic women whose only eccentricity is that they live unusual lives, have strange habits or induce inexplicable effects in others. I think Travis is having a bit of a love affair with these ladies, because they have a vivid liveliness, textural finesse and emotional resonance that exceeds anything he's done before. In my opinion, this new direction will open up a whole new world for him, both in terms of broadening his collector base and in sustaining his romance with making these extraordinary images for years to come.

"Molly Bad Hair"

While doing some research for an upcoming interview with Travis, I was struck by some intriguing statements he's made in the past, which I thought I'd share with those of you who drop by here from time to time.

Travis grew up in Queens in the '70s, steeped in the imagery of an earlier era. "When I was about 5 years old, I wanted to be King Kong," he recalled. "I wanted to climb the Empire State Building, clutching a beautiful little blond woman, while biplanes circled around me trying to shoot my hairy ass down. Fortunately, I never acted any of that out.

Most of my early childhood in New York was spent making drawings and watching Atomic Age sci-fi and horror movies. So many Saturday afternoons included trips to the local comic shops and noon matinees at the RKO Keith's on Northern Blvd., marveling at the 1950s memorabilia – the rocket ships, the superheroes, the giant monsters, and those wonderful movie posters! I would try and draw as much as I could remember from those excursions. It was my grandfather who noticed my enthusiasm for art. He encouraged it, by taking me to museums, buying me art supplies and eventually building my first drawing table. I think I was 12 when I decided that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up."

It seems to me that Travis' impulse to paint these Victorian monsters and human oddities rises in part from a rejection of human society's tendency to marginalize the "other," to cast out those who deviate from a narrow definition of "normal." As the fictionalized 'John Merrick' said in The Elephant Man, "People are frightened by what they don't understand." As a means of countering this ingrained xenophobia, Travis' faux-photographic portraits place these unusual people in a formal, conventional setting, and rather than exploiting their eccentricities, he concentrates on letting their common humanity – their dignity and kindness, anxiety and fortitude, playfulness and pride – emerge from behind the fleshy façades they wear.

"Reginald 'Whiskers' McPherson"

Travis is a connoisseur and collector of Victorian portraits and other early forms of photography, including the carte-de-visite photos that were a staple of the circus sideshow. Though there certainly were abuses in the exploitation of human oddities that proliferated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many unusual people who could never have held down a "straight" job were handsomely compensated for displaying themselves to the public. For some, working as a "freak" was the only alternative to institutionalization or starvation. In fact, those were the very alternatives presented to Joseph 'John' Merrick, later dubbed 'The Elephant Man,' when his stepmother ejected him from his childhood home as a teenager.

Travis's compassion for his misfit characters – an extension of his boyhood identification with the tragic antihero King Kong – is evident throughout his writings and interviews. He once remarked, "My interest in John Merrick – a human oddity who was born with unusual circumstances that could not be treated by 19th century medical practices – stems from the photographs and illustrations of him I saw where he was finally being accepted as a human being and treated with some dignity toward the end of his life. The principal image I recall was of a well-dressed Victorian man, with an unsettling physical condition, enjoying a night out at the theater in full public view."

The empathy he sustains for his subjects is reflected even more clearly in the histories he writes for them, which often exist even before their image has solidified in his mind. "I arrive at the subject matter for my paintings by writing short stories in my notebooks and making many little thumbnails," he once wrote. "The ideas for those little stories come mostly from my dreams." One such tale concerns Miss Bunny, a young lady of uncommon countenance who went to have her picture taken one day.

"While posing for a formal portrait, young Miss Bunny had a sad feeling when her hands touched the rabbit fur the photographer draped over the chair as a prop. She had always wondered what happened to her family – she never found out that they were devoured by wild dogs. At a young age, she was discovered wandering the woods outside Hastings and was adopted by a wealthy London family. She lived what many would consider a charmed life, yet she always felt like an outsider."

Travis Louie's "Strange Grooming Habits" opens at Copro Gallery in Santa Monica on May 9th. Drop by Erratic Phenomena again in August for an in-depth interview with Travis in advance of his Roq la Rue show, which opens on August 14th.

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