Travis Louie

I was at a pet store some time ago buying food for my various creatures ( a pet rat, a tarantula, my pug dog, and my fish) when I came across a book about the “proper care of tarantulas”. It was pretty straightforward stuff about enclosures, temperature regulation, the types of tarantulas, etc, . . . and then I saw the author photo in the back of the book (and it was a dandy!) It wasn’t so much that the author looked like some stereotypical nerd, or that he was dressed like he was attending his senior prom and it was 1976  that caught my attention(powder blue tuxedo and greasy hair in full effect) .

It was the first prize ribbon attached to his tarantula’s tank that made me think, “they had pet shows for arachnids?” “How weird is that?” I’ve seen dog shows on television, like the Westminster Dog Show held at Madison Square Garden in New York every year, . . . but the image of some handler parading a tarantula on a leash and the subsequent examination of said tarantula on some platform by an elegantly dressed “expert” on the various breeds and tarantula groups made me laugh.  I immediately started working on this series of paintings featuring characters with unusual pets and their unusual circumstances. This show at Merry Karnowsky Gallery showcases some of these characters and I hope to publish a book when I complete a few more paintings in this ongoing series sometime next year.

Travis Louie’s paintings come from the tiny little drawings and many writings in his journals. He’s created his own imaginary world that is grounded in Victorian and Edwardian times. It is inhabited by human oddities, mythical beings, and otherworldly characters who appear to have had their formal portraits taken to mark their existence and place in society. The underlining thread that connects all these characters is the unusual circumstances that shape who they were and how they lived. Some of their origins are a complete mystery while others are hinted at. A man is cursed by a goat, a strange furry being is discovered sleeping in a hedge, an engine driver can’t seem to stop vibrating in his sleep, a man overcomes his phobia of spiders, etc, . . .Using inventive techniques of painting with acrylic washes and simple textures on smooth boards, he’s created portraits from an alternate universe that seemingly may or may not have existed.


Travis Louie was born in Queens, New York, about a mile from the site of the 1964 World’s Fair. His early childhood was spent making drawings and watching “Atomic Age” Sci-Fi and Horror movies. There were many Saturday afternoon trips to the local comics shop and noon matinees at the RKO Keith’s cinema on Northern Blvd. , where he marveled at the 1950’s memorabilia: the rocket ships, the superheroes, the giant monsters, and old pulp art covers. He did thousands of sketches of genre characters like Godzilla, King Kong, and a host of creatures from Ray Harryhausen movies.

After high school, he went to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, and graduated with a degree from the communication design dept. with the intent on pursuing a freelance illustration career. The work wasn’t as rewarding as he had anticipated. After a few years freelancing, he created a body of paintings and began showing them in local art galleries. The response was very encouraging. He stopped actively pursuing illustration work and began taking on more private commissions and concentrating his efforts on gallery shows.

The visual style of his work is mostly influenced by the lighting and atmosphere of German Expressionist and Film Noir motion pictures from the Silent Era to the late 1950’s. Films from directors like F W Murnau, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Robert Siodmak, Robert Aldrich, Jacque Tourneur, and cinematographer, Greg Toland, had a great effect on the way he wanted his paintings to look.

To achieve the dramatic “mood” in his paintings, they are produced primarily in black and white or limited color. He uses acrylic paints over tight graphite drawings on smooth grounds, like “plate” finish illustration board or finely sanded, primed wood panels. When he is not painting, his time is spent writing in his notebooks and journals. Many little drawings and sketches are made from those writings, most of which are less than 10 centimeters square.

The influences for his work are many; the genre films, his fascination with human oddities, circus sideshows, old Vaudeville magic acts, Victorian portraits, and things otherworldly, are all blended together to enable him to bring life to the characters and stories he writes in his journals.