Travis Louie's latest show, "Strange Discoveries," at Merry Karnowsky Gallery reminded me of how much I love art that is created for the sake of absurdity. You can't help but smile while admiring his finely detailed graphite and acrylic works that are cleverly reminiscent of old-time photographs. Strolling the gallery is like discovering the long-lost family photo album of the Addams family's ancestors. Historically, Barnum and Bailey and side shows had exploited people and animals that were exceptions to the people's understanding of the natural order of things. They were exploited for their shock value. Travis seems to be very careful about not resorting to that degrading approach in the presentation of his "discoveries". The faux photos create a very personal feeling. These creatures are not reviled, but revered.
Travis's beastly menagerie is never presented as primitives either. They all retain an air of composed dignity as they sit for their picture. But, I do wonder if the imagined photographer might have had some concerns when first approached to take their photo. The early photos sessions, that Travis is referencing, required subjects to stay perfectly still. Knowing that also adds an extra layer of humor.
If you really analyze this fictional world, certain questions come up. Did the tailors have some hesitation before measuring these unusual customers for their custom-fitted clothes? Some go without clothes. Was it socially acceptable to skip clothing if you had a certain amount of fur to cover yourself?
These are not uncivilized creatures that might devour you if you look at them wrong. They are well-adjusted, cultured beings, blending in within polite society. They know how to use a fork and knife. And, you can easily imagine they would be sought-after dinner guests for high society sorts, looking to liven up stagnant dinner party discourse, with their wild tales and wagging tails.
His subjects look right at you and you can see an inner calm in their eyes, or eye, in one subject's case. They have an undeniable sense of self. They are educated and likely articulate. They have a range emotions and seem perfectly capable of connecting with others. They are positioned as true equals to humans; Never chained, caged, or segregated. They appear free to be themselves and live their own lives without threat. They have been accepted and their welcomed.
Travis smartly strengthens their credibility with lengthy and detailed backstories for each of them. He is a wonderfully imaginative writer who includes very specific, unexpected details. Some people may rather interpret works like this on their own and skip reading the origins. But, I think that Travis needs these for the faux photo concept to really pay it off as "proof" of existence and they are a hoot to boot. It helps blur reality.
As a character actor, it would be a dream come true to bring to life one of his creations. I wish he had had a performer casually mingling at the show for photo opps. I can really see great potential for a historical mockumentary with his creatures. Travis has certainly laid the groundwork for a fantastic premise. But, in order to do his characters justice and show their subtle personalities, CGI effects should be used sparingly and more traditional makeup would provide the best execution.
In several of the pieces, humans are posing together with beasts. The context of the dynamic reads as interspecies friends more than owner and pet. The mostly dead-pan humans in Travis's work never give the slightest hint that there is anything out of the ordinary. I think that sends a very positive message of acceptance that we should remember: Diversity makes our world a more interesting place.
The show runs through December 7th at Merry Karnowsky Gallery.