Travis Louie paints fascinating portraits which appear to have been unearthed from dusty vaults originating from the bygone days of some 19th century alternative reality. Louie’s portfolio is a truly magnificent archive of monochrome and sepia tinted imagery, all populated with curious characters and charismatic creatures, adorned in their finest Sunday bests; which, one can only assume, were lovingly pulled off the hangers from within their Victorian era closets and worn with pride. Although Louie’s aesthetic may affectionately borrow from the past, much of the inspiration for his thematic content is very much rooted within his experiences in the present. Being an Asian American and having been exposed to the torment of racism and xenophobia while growing up, Louie imbues his wonderful ensemble of characters with his powerful empathetic emotions, through which they essentially personify a triumphant celebration of our contemporary cultures’ multiracial diversity.
Travis Louie was born in Queens, New York in 1964 and is currently living and working in the Hudson Valley area. After graduating from Pratt Institute with a degree from their communication design department, Travis went on to pursue a career in freelance illustration, which he ultimately found to be unsatisfying. This in turn, inspired him to invest time and effort in his personal painting, and the rest as they say, is history. Louie has exhibited his paintings and drawings in prestigious galleries around the world and his artwork has been published in countless publications.
WOW x WOW grabbed a recent opportunity to delve a little deeper into Travis’ thoughts and ideas relating to his creative practice. So, join us, and learn a little more about this remarkable artist in the interview below.
We’re interested to hear about where you’re currently living and what you like about the area? What is the art scene like there and do you feel a part of that community?
There isn’t so much an art scene in my area as it is a place where artists choose to live. The Hudson Valley area is a quiet, rural, peaceful kind of place. After spending more than half of my life in Queens, Long Island, and Chinatown, I decided to move up here in late 1990’s. I still commute to Manhattan to teach at the School of Visual Arts, so I’m not too far away from the “city life” and have just the right amount of isolation for contemplation. I didn’t wake up one morning and suddenly have the theme from Green Acres in my head. It was a very calculated decision to move up here.
Storytelling and narrative are at the heart of the art you make. In your opinion, what are some of the most important ingredients that go into making a successful visual narrative?
It’s important to be committed to your narrative. I like to have a whole backstory figured out for each character even if I don’t put every part of it in the work. When I am able to “know” the character that well, the process feels more complete to me. It’s almost like I’m writing a script for each painting.
Nostalgia for pop culture and assorted memorabilia flavours your narratives and visual aesthetic; whether it be for Atomic Age sci-fi stories, film noir, or your love of antique portrait photography. If you could reminisce for us a little here, and talk about your initial thoughts behind piecing these influences together and the type of themes you were interested in exploring through your wonderful portraits. Also, have your motives remained faithful to your original ideas, or have they changed through the years?
All artists are a reflection of the time they live in, regardless of what kind of work they do. We are like filters that absorb all kinds of sensory information and when we make our art, those things that adhere to our psyche, our aesthetic… they come out in the work. I grew up with the immigrant experience despite being born here, because I’ve had to grapple with how I was perceived as not “being from around here”. I’ve experienced racism and xenophobia firsthand, so there is a connection in my portraits, as they have an underlying thread of unusual people or creatures trying to just live their lives like anybody else… even though they are “different” from everyone else.
Do you ever feel under any pressure to keep painting in the style you have become known for?
If there is any pressure at all, it comes from within. I’m cognizant that I have a “style”, but I’m not interested in repeating myself for the sake of appeasing a niche audience. I just haven’t fully explored everything in this stage of my work. I am adapting to new stories all the time.
How deeply do you allow the autobiographical currents within your work to flow? When looking back at individual pieces from your back catalogue, do you feel that they show what you were experiencing or going through around the period of their creation?
Sometimes I put certain character ticks from actual people I’ve met into the paintings. I am a people-watcher who spends a lot of time observing behavior. When I look back at my older work, it is a little more obvious in my mind. Lately, I’ve been more subtle.
Being an artist who works within the visual realm, can you shed some light on some of the most important inspirations and influences on your work that aren’t visual?
I think of my grandfather and I think of my time in grade school. The 1970’s was an interesting time to grow up in for sure. Something about experiencing a simpler world in a way… where there still was a kind of regionalism to not only neighborhoods, but entire cities and states. I think we’ve lost some of that with the information age and homogenization of culture in general in the United States. There was a limitation to what a young person was exposed to culturally… I mean… music for example… the music scenes were so different from coast to coast. Punk and New Wave music existed in New York, but in Los Angeles, it sounded very different. I think my work would have developed and looked different had I lived someplace else.
The tides appear to be changing with regards to the way artists are marketing and selling their work. With the power afforded to everyone in the form online social media, letting the world know about your art has never been easier. Many artists run their own online shops and some are bypassing the traditional bricks and mortar galleries altogether. You cut your teeth as a fine artist at time when all of this was in its infancy and still favour showing your work in well-established physical galleries. What are your thoughts about how the landscape is changing and what do you think the future holds?
When I started out, the internet was an idea. Established galleries are difficult to break into without generating some kind of track record first. Right now, social media is helping many artists who have had a hard time getting into a brick and mortar gallery space. It has been very helpful for several artists to establish themselves that way. I still think the high art world requires being in a gallery at some point, because there probably is still a ceiling for what one can sell their work for on the internet alone with no gallery representation. I haven’t seen anybody yet who is getting “blue chip” type numbers from their own online store without some gallery being involved to bolster their market.
What are your opinions about beauty in reference to man-made artefacts? Is beauty something that you search for in art and is it something you consider when producing your own work?
The cop out answer would be that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If I could tell you what I think excites me about art, the answer would be long-winded and chock full of philosophical flourishes. I guess the simplest thing would be something about the gracefulness of a line and the ambiguous character of certain shapes as it relates to form… it just seems very obvious to me when something doesn’t have any grace to it. I know what I like when I see it.
What would be the greatest compliment you could ever receive about your work?
That’s kind of an odd thing for me. I make my art for myself really, but if I made someone smile in a positive way… that’s good enough for me.
In order to get a better understanding of the personality of an artist, it can help to get a peek behind the curtain. Would you be willing to share a story from your own life, one which you feel has contributed to shaping the person and therefore the artist you are today?
My mom once told me she thought that my kindergarten teacher looked like Richard Nixon in drag. I still laugh at that.
If you could own one piece of art from any of the world’s collections what would it be and why?
What’s next for Travis Louie?