At first, Travis Louie’s characters might seem a touch monstrous. After all, some of them really are monsters, like Tim, who’s got horns and pointy ears. He’s a “worry Krampus.” He’s a cousin to the traditional Krampus of Germanic extraction, who is a companion to Saint Nicholas, a terrifying, child-stealing upping of the “coal in the stocking” ante.
Tim’s in the habit of soaking up ambient worry via his beard, then unleashing the stored-up anxiety on unsuspecting bankers or conmen. Tim, however, seems to have suffered a bit for his proximity to that worry-soaked facial hair. He looks anxious. He looks like he could use a pal.
At William Baczek Gallery in Northampton, you can peruse a large selection of Louie’s beautifully rendered portraits, which hang in frames of the sort most commonly found surrounding dour family portraits of 130ish years ago. The effect of a roomful is startling. It’s strange to be a few feet from the passersby on Main Street, surrounded by so many unusual faces. Each portrait is accompanied by a brief summation of the character’s life, and before long, it’s easy to forget where you are, to enter for a moment a world that’s antiquated but evocative, real but not quite.
Most of Louie’s characters don’t look as overtly needly as Tim—most of them look tranquil, at home in their strangeness. And they are all strange in one way or another. One has hair that permanently smokes, and one is a well-informed frog who offers tips to racetrack betters who can decipher his swampy language.
The exhibit is called Before They Became Heroes or Villains, and that sense of potential good or evil remains in the air as you look at and read about each of the many oddballs on display: will they go on to fame or infamy?
The answers, by the time you’ve absorbed a few of Louie’s tales, are ambiguous. Look into their eyes, and you don’t see malice anywhere. There is the occasional face with strange, swirled irises, but evil is not afoot, even when the character is up to mischief. Even Monkey Boy, one of the more dangerous portrait subjects, seems pretty happy about the whole business.
Ask Louie himself about his subjects, and you get a ricocheting volley of multifaceted answers. He’s deft, witty, and possessed of a sometimes riotous manner. He is, in a sense, a curator of odd personalities. “Some of them are people I know, friends, just a version of them,” he says. “Most of them are some part of me. Our art is about our id. That’s what artists do—they’re putting their life experiences through this filter. We’re creating things using our life experience.”
He offers the example of his portrait of a girl who becomes a phantom, haunting a theater because they once shortchanged her. “That happened to me at a 7-11,” Louie says. “I think I was eight years old. I gave the guy a $20, and the change was the same as if I’d given him a single. And of course, they kept it. They upset me—so I sort of held a grudge against that store for years.”
Though Louie’s paintings are black and white, a clear reference to Victorian era photos, they aren’t meant to be entirely remote from current reality. “They would exist with our universe,” he says. “Have you ever seen people that just don’t belong? Something’s not right, but they function, they speak our language. The only thing that’s wrong with them is they’re strange looking. Their unique qualities are what they live with every day. There’s a mayor in Russia—he’s gigantic. He’s over seven feet tall. Just a big, big guy. And he functions. He’s a really good public speaker.
“You see people who are really heavy, or they have a twin attached to their body. They’re just dealing with whatever they have. Which is my veiled reference to racism, actually, and immigration. That’s probably why most of the paintings are set in the 19th century. That was the age of immigration. People were saying things like, ‘Man, these potatoes are not working, we have to do something. We have to go to America!’”
That 19th-century connection is true of Louie’s family, he says. “My grandmother’s grandfather came here in the 1850s because some idiot told him there was a mountain of gold in California. They land on the West Coast, and they end up working on the railroad. If you’re a Chinese person [in the 1850s], you don’t want to work on the railroad.”
Louie is rather philosophical about the issue of racism. “Racism comes from all sorts of things. Much like other animals, we like to be around similar-looking people. Zebra wants to be around zebras. That’s just human nature, that’s how it works. We make associations based on how we interact. There’s some guy who got his dry cleaning messed up in the ’90s and he sees my face and he thinks, ‘Son of a bitch!’
“I pick these odd characters because they’re not really black, white, or from some recognizable culture. I can have people that are out of place from different cultures without using anybody from a culture that actually exists. I’m not using Irishmen, or Welsh or French. They’re out of place, but it’s not because they’re German, but because they’re a Krampus.”
The technical dazzle of Louie’s paintings and drawings is immediately clear, but the written vignettes he creates offer more than information. The language is succinct, but it conveys big stories. They resemble prose poems, and echo the kind of whimsical worlds created by prose poem master Russell Edson.
Louie keeps notebooks, and they hold words and pictures that begin his process of creation, he says. “Often I write the stories first and then I make the paintings, but sometimes it’s the opposite. It’s as innocent as I see somebody, and I wonder about that person. Where did they get that bump on their head? Where would this person live? I try to find a town, and I make up a story about what went on in that town.”
The towns he uses can be found on maps, and he researches them. “I mention facts, and people are surprised they’re real. They say things like, ‘They really did manufacture rope in that part of Scotland—no kidding.’”
All the same, his reference source is unusual. “[I choose these towns] often because Monty Python characters mention them.”
Louie hasn’t so far visited any of the U.K. towns he mentions. “My fear is that it’ll be like Texas, very remote. Just this weird, quiet, scary town,” he says. “I would never go to those places for that reason alone. I live in a small town called Red Hook [N.Y.]. We only just got our fourth traffic light.”
Louie’s characters, villains and heroes alike, seem to mostly want to tell their stories for themselves. Louie makes it clear that the search for understanding comes directly from the creator of those characters.
“I’m afraid of being misunderstood. Like you’re walking down the street, and there’s a woman in front of you, and right next to you there’s a guy who whistles. She turns around and sees you. That’s the kind of misunderstanding that I’m always afraid of.
“I’m sure I must have said that in the middle of my sleep one night—‘You’ve got the wrong guy!’
“And my wife probably said, ‘You’re damn right!’”•
Travis Louie: Before They Became Heroes or Villains: through June 29, William Baczek Fine Arts, 36 Main St., Northampton, (413) 587-9880, wbfinearts.com.