Blue is for Depression (April 2006)
by Blair Cooper

Painter Luke Chueh talks about his secret tool, the changing LA underground art scene, flying fucks and shitstorms.

Apr 15, 2006 | Bing. A pink, one-legged bunny on crutches limps through the elevator doors. There’s a panel of buttons -- press “up” for hell. Elsewhere in the mind of Luke Chueh, the sky darkens as a bear opens the evening paper and gets comfortable on a toilet in the clouds.
It isn’t Chueh’s subject matter -- cute, colorful, cuddly animals -- that makes his work stand out. It’s how he depicts it. Adorable bears and bunnies are placed in violently unfortunate and woefully hilarious circumstances. The animals themselves are visually appealing and, perhaps more importantly, beyond the tick-boxes of gender, race, and class. The viewer, in turn, can easily empathize. This is the kind of connection that the painter appreciates in art and strives for in his own work.

For Chueh, the quirky English language is rife with inspiring vocabulary and idiom. His five favorite words are “fuck,” “shit,” “sardonic,” “esoteric,” and “forlorn.” In fact, it’s next to impossible to write about his art without using an oxymoron. But there’s a lot more behind a Chueh painting than profanities and wordplay.

What inspires you these days?
I'm inspired by my personal experiences, pop culture versus geek culture versus street culture, and the artwork and accomplishments of my friends and contemporaries.

You appear to have an affinity for deep, moody, primary colors. There aren't very many greens or purples in your work; any reason?
I've created a tool I call “The Color Wheel of Doom.” In my color wheel, I've designated each color with a particular mood or action. Blue represents depression, green represents pestilence, red represents violence and bloodshed, and orange represents insanity. I've chosen yellow and purple to function as “wild” colors that can be used for any scenario I deem fit. However, I've found purple/violet to be a difficult and unsettling color to work with. I guess I simply haven't conceived of any purple ideas.

"The Color Wheel of Doom” sounds like one badass art supply.
I'm glad you get a kick out of it. Since my education is in graphic design, I learned about color theory and how people subconsciously react to color. It's something I definitely consider when approaching each painting.

I’m sure color theory is something you consider when you’re doing curatorial work as well. You recently curated the aptly titled Vivisect Playset (Round 2). How was it?
I think the show was a success, considering the fact that the show ran through the month of December, an infamously slow month for the gallery scene. We packed the gallery and sold plenty of art. When comparing Round 1 to Round 2, the shows were completely different. Originally, the first was an experiment. Gallery Nineteen Eighty Eight had a two-week opening in their calendar, and they offered the slot to me. Knowing that I didn't have enough work or time to put together a solo show, I proposed to them what would become The Vivisect Playset (Round 1). So I invited my best friends Thomas Han and Joe Ledbetter (this was the first time either of them had shown in an actual art gallery), artist and toy sculptor Dave Pressler, and Oakland-based artist Peter Gronquist. Basically, the show functioned as a way to formally introduce and elevate a handful of relatively unknown but extremely talented artists from LA's underground art scene to LA's gallery scene. The show ended up becoming G1988's surprise success of the year, with each artist selling more than half -- if not all -- of their paintings and G1988 re-extending their invitation for me to curate Round 2.
For Round 2, I invited a slew of other like-minded artists of varying degrees of accomplishment. The final lineup featured 13 artists, including all five Vivisect alumni. I think it goes without saying that Round 2 was very different from Round 1, but that difference was more like an evolution and a step in the right direction.

Your involvement with Gallery Nineteen Eighty Eight is really cool and it sounds like you’re bridging some gaps in the LA art world. Do you do a lot of curatorial work?
I look forward to curating Round 3, which will also be hosted by G1988 this December. The Vivisect Playsets have been my only curatorial experiences, and though I'd be interested in curating other shows in the future, I really don't have the time. I would much rather focus on painting and being curated instead.

As both an artist and an art supporter, could you tell us more about the LA underground art scene, the gallery scene, and their relationship. Do they overlap with any other scenes?
The LA underground art scene seems to have some sort of connection to the long-gone rave scene. Many galleries don’t have permanent spaces and they move around from show to show. They often feature DJ’s, bands, and live art. They’re usually one-night affairs -- built around the fact that most art is seen and sold at the opening reception of gallery shows -- and run from the evening until two in the morning. They charge at the door in order to cover the costs of renting the space, sound systems, etc. Thanks to the relatively low overhead of producing these shows, they can feature artists who might otherwise never get to show due to gallery politics. I got my start through Cannibal Flower and I learned a lot. It’s very humbling when you see your painting next to other talented artists’ work.
When I first moved to Los Angeles in 2003, my initial impression was that LA had three major galleries dedicated to artwork of the underground genre. At that time, the relationship between the underground shows and the galleries was slim to nonexistent. But new galleries have been popping up all over the place: Gallery Nineteen Eighty Eight, GR2, Lab 101, Project, ThinkSpace, Nucleus, and Subliminal Projects, to name a few. These galleries brought underground artists into their spaces and fostered an atmosphere of respect and recognition for both artist and gallery.

Interesting. Getting back to the Vivisect Playset, why do you think animals, particularly cute ones, are fitting conveyances for “illustrating the human condition?”
The use of animals as metaphors is a communication tool humans of various societies have employed throughout human history. Thanks to mass media, the personification of animals is commonplace (complements of Hanna Barbera and Walt Disney). The reason why I think “cute” animals are easy for us to connect with is because most of us grew up with cute animals such as teddy bears or stuffed animals that comforted and protected us. In my paintings, I use cuteness to illustrate innocence, and when coupled with the dark scenarios I create, innocence lost. The pain of that experience is a regular theme… a theme I think all humans can relate to in one way or another.

Do you have a favorite animal? Any pets?
I'm down with dogs, but I don't have a pet. If I did, it would be a dog.

Let’s talk bears. Shitstorm is one of my favorite paintings. The pipes peeking out of the clouds are perfect. Could you tell us more about this painting?
I think the English language can be very illustrative, and “shitstorm” is one of those words/exclamations that always made me think. What would a shit-storm be like? What if shitstorms really occurred in nature? Would it be like the scene when the frogs were raining down at the end of Magnolia? I simply thought illustrating a shitstorm would be fun and funny. “Flying fuck” (as in “I don't give a flying fuck about...”) is another one that makes me think.

I gotta be honest, Luke, I wouldn’t tattoo Shitstorm on my neck. (Tattoos aren’t my style. I’d go for the giclee print if I had the money.) But really, was it a great feeling when you first saw a photo of someone with a tattoo of your work?
It's always extremely flattering when someone gets a tattoo of one of my paintings. If art is simply a form of communication between artist and audience, then I guess it means I succeeded. To create something that people feel so strongly for, something they identify with, so much so that they’re willing to have it permanently incorporated into their skin, really reaffirms my decision to pursue art as a career.

So what might a “flying fuck” look like?
I wish I could tell you, but I really have no idea. I think it would look pretty messy.

Twenty Monkeys With Hats (And One Squid) is another piece that stands out in my eyes. It reminds me of Gary Larson and Family Guy humor. What inspired it? Did you plan the squid from the beginning?
When I first started painting and showing in Los Angeles, my friend L. Crowsky (Founder and Curator of The Cannibal Flower) shared with me a theory he developed from his experiences while working at La Luz de Jesus and Cannibal Flower: paintings that featured skulls, monkeys, rabbits and/or girls (specifically the kind of girls that girls want to be and that guys want to fuck) were sure to sell, as long as the price was right. He then suggested I create a series of monkeys wearing different hats, and that's how the story goes. I chose the hats personally, and the squid simply seemed like a good idea.

In addition to Family Guy, you like Elimidate. I’m curious: Would you ever consider going on a reality show?
Elimidate is absolutely ridiculous. Would I ever go on a date show? No, I'm way too shy. Also, I'm not really “smooth” when it comes to things like dating. I prefer the slower, getting-to-know-the-person-before-swapping-fluids approach.

[Smiles] What about music? I’d like to hear more about your work with E.X.P. and interest in intelligent dance music.
I created E.X.P. back when I was studying graphic design at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. At the time, I wanted to be the next David Carson (the original art director of Raygun Magazine). But I realized that the chances of that happening, or of me being able to find a job that was interested in “extreme” or “experimental” typography was slim, if not impossible. The only way I saw it happening was if I made a market myself, so I created E.X.P., a publication that featured the experimental/intelligent dance music I loved while letting me vent my desire to experiment with graphic design. IDM is essentially experimental dance music. The experimental aspect revolves around the manipulation of time signatures or sounds. Artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre, Squarepusher, µ-ziq, Venetian Snares, and Gescom typify IDM.

What did E.X.P. look like?
There were a total of five issues. Issues one through three were magazine-style publications (folded down the center and saddle-stapled). Then I switched from a numerical numbering system to an alphabetical one, and experimented with magazine formats by stuffing all the contents into an envelope and letting the reader sort out the info for themselves. Issue
A was several 11” x 14” sheets folded down to 8.5” x 5.5.” Issue B had a couple of 22” x 28” sheets folded down to an 8.5” x 5.5.” I loved publishing E.X.P. However, geographic limitations (San Luis Obsipo is not the epicenter of IDM culture), coupled with time and work, eventually killed it. I still listen to IDM though.

Well, based on your website’s layout, the composition of your paintings, and your work with E.X.P., it seems like your graphic design education has had a big impact on your art today. Do you ever want to get back into graphic design, typography, or computer art?
Yeah, my education and experience as a graphic designer has played an integral role in my approach and techniques toward my paintings. As I mentioned before, my dream was to become an editorial graphic designer who expressed editorial components through compositional and typographical experimentation. However, when Ernie Ball hired me, I was forced to completely reconsider my approach to design, especially when designing print advertisements. The average reader’s attention span for the average print advertisement is approximately 2.3 seconds. If you can't catch the reader’s attention and deliver your message efficiently, then you’ve wasted tons of advertising dollars. Through my five years of working for Ernie Ball, my attitude and ambitions for design evolved, and my abilities for framing design projects around the concept of a 2.3 second attention span were strengthened. I think I carried this approach to my paintings.
I'm glad I can fall back on graphic design, but it's not something I'm interested in pursuing as a career. It’s something I employ regularly for both friends and myself. And I'm comforted by the knowledge that I don't need to rely on someone else to design my website, business cards, and other promotional products.

You recently took some flak for coming across as “pretentious” in another interview. What are your thoughts on that interview now?
I still wish the site used the edited and updated version of the interview, but I'm not really bothered by the negative responses. I just accredit it to an evolution in my career. Once you've got enough attention and fans, you’re inevitably going to have haters. Hooray! (Thanks to everyone who stood up for me in the comments. Your support is truly appreciated.)

If they’re talking about you, you’re doing something right. In that interview you described your work as “post brow.” Could you elaborate on the terms "low-brow," "post-brow," "underground art," etc.?
Sure. Low-brow, in my eyes, is a genre of art that exploded onto the scene in the late eighties. Illustration-based, low-brow art wasn't afraid of being funny, sexy, controversial, and even racist. Low-brow art was pretty much a celebration of being white and American -- two things that society pretty much frowned on during the politically correct nineties. 1960's white trash icons like Rat Fink, the pin-striping of Von Dutch, and all things b-culture (tiki idols, horror movies, comics, cartoons, etc.) were resurrected in low-brow paintings and magazines such as the now defunct Art Alternatives. They brought much deserved attention to a genre most galleries would probably have never touched.
Like you said, post-brow was a title I came up with recently. The way I see it, post-brow art is the product of a new genre of artists who grew up under the shadow of low-brow art and were inspired by what we saw in the magazines. I consider post-brow art to pretty much be low-brow art minus the white trash element. As for me, I didn't grow up around Rat Fink or Hot Rods, I grew up with Robotech, Sanrio, Transformers, and Nintendo.
The underground art movement pretty much covers an entire scene of artists who have decided to stop waiting for an invitation from a gallery that's never going to arrive. Instead, they’ve created informal events to show their art on their own. These events are usually in alternative spaces like abandoned office spaces or warehouses, and promotion ranges from word of mouth to photocopied fliers. Groups such as Cannibal Flower and Create:Fixate typify Los Angeles' underground art movement.

I, personally, like the creation of new genres and the expansion of our art vocabulary. But others sometimes make the valid point that jargon muddies things and alienates those who aren't in the know. What's your stance?
I think labeling and categorizing in art and in general is a necessary evil. It's something we instinctually do, and when handled with an open mind, it can be a good thing. It can help audiences better understand and appreciate what they see, and it can help them discover other less popular, like-minded artists. However, it can also be used against artists as a way to belittle and stereotype them. Basically, I think it's something unavoidable, and the sooner you can come to terms with it, the better.