Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Fantastic in the Fine Arts: Perfectly Sophisticated Monsters

During the month of October, we have been featuring artwork from the exhibition at Florida State University's Museum of Fine Arts entitled Cute and Creepy.  The exhibition runs from October 14 through November 20, and we would encourage you to visit it in person if you are in the Talahassee area.  So far we've featured the work of Kelly Boehmer, Ray Caesar, and Carrie Anne Baade, the curator of the exhibit; today's feature on the work of Travis Louie marks the final installment of our coverage of this exhibition.

Travis Louie, Curse of the Goat, 2006
It seems very fitting, in a week dedicated to Halloween and all things monster-related, to feature the work of Travis Louie.  Louie's monsters, though, aren't the terrifying sharks that Dan Poblocki wrote about earlier this week, or the nightmarish Grendel from Beowulf that Kat Howard discussed earlier today.

No, Louie's monsters aren't like that at all.

Louie's monsters are gentlemen.

In his piece Curse of the Goat, the subject of Louie's painting is refined.  His coat and tie look immaculate, his beard and hair are carefully groomed, and he carries the look of a slightly odd, but pefectly nice, philosophy professor.  The sepia tones of the painting add respectability--it looks like an old photograph, not the painting of a horrible monster.

In fact, the more you look at this painting, the less unusual it looks and the more you wonder, "Why is this even called a monster in the first place?"

Travis Louie, Edward Twitchy Jones, 2006

Louie's statement on the Cute and Creepy exhibition website explains this more formal depiction of monsters: "Louie has 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 underlying thread that connects all these characters is the unusual circumstances that shape who they were and how they lived."

I see the phrase "existence and place in society" as key to that statement.  Louie is not just interested in depicting monsters or odd-looking characters, but he's also interested in thinking about how they relate to the rest of society.  By bringing together the monstrous and the formal, the "human oddity" and the gentleman, Louie's images have the power to call into question the categories that define so many of our interactions with others.  Furthermore, the fact that these monsters are so close to human--and, I think, start to look more and more human the longer you look at them--might be able to be read as a critical commentary on our tendancy as humans to cast off as "monstrous" those people who do not look the same as us.  As Kat Howard argued about Grendel's mother, Louie's monsters have the power to expose the parts of us that are the most monstrous.

And so, in spite of their dignified demeanors, fine dress, and formal framing, this makes Louie's monsters quite terrifying, indeed.

All images copyright Travis Louie.  Used with permission.