I first met Travis Louie in 2008 at Carrie Ann Baade’s Surrealist Tea, where a lovely group of artists got a chance to meet and eat tiny delectable sandwiches and drink a good spot of tea. I imagine the Victorian beasts of Louie might do something similar, for certainly they seem to be the most well behaved of all the monsters I’ve been introduced to as of late. One sometimes sees the intelligence behind their gaze – other times, the madness. Louie’s captions are often at war with the snap judgments I want to make about the creature in the portrait. In that sense, he tries to humanize that which I would demonize and label the hybrid, the freak, the monstrous.
Take, for instance, the dignified Smacking Krampus. Louie lets us know that the hand is “as big as a frying pan” and that it isn’t wielded until after much deliberation. Whereas the mythological Krampus is often portrayed as St. Nicholas’ lecherous, vindictive sidekick who threatens to steal children and throw them in a sack (so much for just getting coal in your shoes), Louie’s version allows his victims a chance to at least prove themselves. We see his hand raised as if about to ask a question, the other hand rubbing his chin in quiet thought. The only violence we are given is in the caption which tells us that he “smacks his victims until they relent.” With a hand as big as a frying pan, that implies a fair amount of pain is delivered. But in his eyes we see not even a glimmer of malicious intent.
Mr. Enthusiasm’s eyes, on the other hand, creep me out. They are too big, widely spaced, the pupils mere pinpoints. That semi-jagged tongue hanging out doesn’t help matters, either. But this jolly “man” seems to be both a good soul and a cautionary tale regarding the perils of post-modern living: “After long bouts of insomnia, he developed an unusual amount of enthusiasm for all things. He wandered around the English countryside, cheering strangers on through the most mundane of tasks, like sweeping or rat catching.” Given a culture that has been admonished by the medical community on our consistent lack of sleep, I wonder how many of us perhaps feel the way Mr. Enthusiasm looks, wild eyed and slightly askew in how we see the world.
In the caption for Pals we are told that Herbert and Lawrence lost some kind of bet, but we are not privy to the finer details. Was the consequence to wear the dresses? If so, they put some inordinate care into getting fitted properly. Herbert has breasts whereas Lawrence is rather flat chested, and the dresses are tailored to accentuate their trim waists. Their outfits belie that this might be some careless bet lost and that perhaps these two had the dresses already and were more than happy to pose in them, hand in hand. Louie’s characters often seem to reside in between gender and sexual orientation, playfully challenging our desire to categorize them.
It’s hard to say A Girl and Her Troll Head out loud and not laugh (just try it). On first glance, I’m not sure what to think about this tenuous friendship. The head is too large for me to feel really comfortable with the girl being in such close proximity, despite the stiffness and formality of the pose. The caption that Louie includes tells us that the humans have decapitated the trolls in order to control their “unruly” behavior and then turn them into pets since the headless trolls stay alive even without their bodies.
Such grotesque violence being used on an “unruly” race echoes the rhetoric of slavery and racism, which might explain the girl’s troubled, faraway look. Certainly she doesn’t seem to be happy with her “toy” despite the resigned look of the troll. Even though the two giant fangs appear not to pose a threat, does the girl still sense a danger being so close to one her people have emasculated and colonized? This, of course, begs the question of who is the real monster?
Walter the Pug shows a more horrific animal, despite the Victorian dress and stuffy name. The giant fangs plus two very human-looking teeth have come by accident, though, and the ferocious look on Walter’s face is merely his proud display of an abnormality. If we didn’t have this back story, what sorts of evils would we ascribe to this possible Cujo? Louie’s captions remind us how erasing someone’s story is like erasing the person themselves – all we have left is half-formed judgments based on their appearance, what we perceive to be their gender, economic status, etc. I think the monster sometimes helps us see the deeper violence perpetuated by those snap stereotypes. Certainly I appreciate how Louie’s art destabilizes what I know to be true about freaks, geeks, and hybrid souls. And I’m not the only one. If you go to the New Yorker’s article on Guillermo del Toro, you can see a few of Louie’s works hanging on Del Toro’s wall. The man’s got good taste.
You can view more of Travis Louie’s art here