Travis Louie

Travis Louie, Rhinochops c. 1881 Courtesy William Baczek Fine Arts, Northampton, Massachusetts

Travis Louie’s work in “Before They Became Heroes or Villains,” at William Baczek Fine Arts, in Northampton, Massachusetts, draws on memory, fantasy and mystery, to present a collection of portraits that simultaneously startles, amazes and puzzles. Like Alice in Wonderland, we encounter creatures that are hybrids, strange beings that whimsically comment on both the human and animal realms. Viewers experience humor, sarcasm and an almost surrealist sense of surprise as they encounter rabbits as large as people, a frog in formal dress, a tree spirit with tendrils of hair like vines, a potato-head that has become anthropomorphic. In delicate graphite drawings and soft monochromatic acrylic paintings, quizzical, exaggerated yet vulnerable characters appear to sit for nineteenth-century daguerreotype-style pictures. Staring out at the audience, dazed, they convey a gentleness and innocence and at times a certain plaintiveness. 

Early photography entailed long sittings that the subject, in formal “best dress,” endured, remaining still in order for the artist/photographer to produce a likeness. Sometimes, headrests were used to steady the subject, rendering the person immobile and stiff-looking. Long exposures reduced detail because of the incidence of multiple shadows as the light changed, and the blur created by the subject’s inability to sit still suggested the spiritual realm to some. Like an early form of Kirlian photography (where energy is captured in, say, a leaf), Louie’s work reveals glimpses of eerie, but not frightening, beings, unblinking, as if they lived in a perpetual fantasy present. Often, the figure literally becomes the idea, as in Weedy, a magical, elf-like being—with a wide face, sloping shoulders and intense, bright eyes—that seems part human, part animal, part vegetation. He is clothed in a high-collared cloak; his hair, eyebrows and goatee buzz with life. His smooth, child-like face lacks rancor or feeling; he is here to speak for the weeds. 

Louie starts with a graphite drawing on board, and builds form with acrylic washes, adding and erasing to get darks and lights. He also uses graphite powder, smoothing and blending to achieve the tonal quality that at times approximates a photographic finish. Overall tones are grey and soft black, achieved without blemish or mark. Every wrinkle and tendril of hair is lovingly and exactingly described. Louie exhibits both confidence and ease in the drawings and paintings, where images pop out like fruit being skinned, or like pictures emerging mysteriously in the orange/red light of a darkroom. 

The juxtaposition of a predictable central composition with the eccentric portraiture of these odd beings creates a kind of frisson of dissonance, which makes the paintings, despite their stiff poses, feel oddly alive, and quietly humorous. Elaborate hair often defies gravity, like illustrations in old floral portraits where botanical irregularities take on an eerie tentacle-like vivacity. Creatures are placed in the picture frame in such a way as to show them in their best light—collars straightened, ruffles poised, ties in place—with a knowing, self-conscious aura, as if these portraits were to last forever. Rhinochops is a serious, mustached rhino-headed creature who gazes impassively out at the spectator. Dressed in cravat and crisp shirt, he is all business, and could be the proprietor of an inn, an overly serious student of philosophy or an upscale bouncer. 

Short paragraphs of writing, stories embellishing or explaining context and character, accompany the works. As in word-and-image combinations throughout history, each component contributes to the other. Generations of artists and writers have been fascinated by this combination: William Blake, John Bunyan, Edward Lear, Mallarmé and Apollinaire. The texts themselves are set in Watson typeface, reminiscent of circus sideshow ads or subtitles in silent movies. The writing, drawn from Louie’s personal journal entries (often accompanied by sketches), is an imaginative narrative about trans-species creatures who sometimes become pets; and fantastical beings who turn out to be real, like the one in Miss K and Her Jackalope. The jackalope is considerably larger than Miss K and surprisingly docile. The stories are told in straightforward language that moves from beginning to end, as if the story were obvious. These rare species, we come to understand, are more like friends, and they are described with both finesse and tenderness, as if the creator of this whole world were twirling his fine brush or even his mustache, as he unfurls yet another tale. The works are presented in ornate black frames, with an occasional hint of rose or chestnut color, similar to pictures in a fine old smoking room with oriental carpets. The effect is like an early twentieth-century Louis Sherry chocolate box, containing ephemeral surprise and lasting delight. 

The title of the show, “Before They Became Heroes or Villains,” speaks to a time these images arrest, when the creatures in his world, as Louie says, “can have a significant turning point in their lives that shapes who they are and what they become known for.” How much more weight the title puts on these people-animals, the brush capturing a point before decisions have been made—as if a camera had caught innocence or raw emergence. 

The work faintly echoes art interests of the last few years, including identity, post-human bodies, hybridity and artists as scientists. But the literary world of metaphor, kinship, idiosyncrasy and self-creation is the stronger reference. Politics enter in as well, hinting at issues of discrimination and racial typing. Rather than belonging to any one art movement, Louie gleefully spins out his fantastic world for all of us to share. He says: “I create my own little universe occupied by the characters in my paintings.” Like fantasies in a crosspiece of wood or the stain on a ceiling, his images start with a scrap of an idea and allow the mind to spin. “Travis Louie—Before They Became Heroes or Villains” was on view May 14–June 29, 2014, at William Baczek Fine Arts, 36 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts 01060. Telephone (413) 587 9880.  

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2014, Volume 31, Number 4