If you live in L.A., you might think that Luke Chueh is everywhere. The local artist with an international reputation has had, he estimates, ten solo shows in the city (his latest, Contemptorary ran at Corey Helford Gallery in February). He's been in countless group shows, from the Cannibal Flower events where he got his start to, more recently, Inle at Gallery 1988 and #PrayForJapan at JapanLA. In May, his work will appear in the group show “Bunnies and Bows.” A large, bloody bear based on the painting “Possessed” is standing in the window of Melrose Ave. designer toy shop Munky King, where we conducted this interview. His work is even on the cover of a recent issue of Giant Robot.
Luke Chueh, though, is the kind of guy you want to see everywhere, a humble and immensely clever artist who is as approachable as he is intriguing. He's the kind of guy with whom you can begin a conversation by discussing art and then up talking about The Venture Bros. and Pulp.
“I love the way they tied in that Pulp track,” said Chueh, referencing the use of the song “Like a Friend” in the Season 4 finale. “I love the way it romanticizes the whole thing, but kind of reinserts it into the absurdity of The Venture Bros. It was unexpected, but a pleasant surprise. It made me love the song even more.”
This isn't necessarily a random aside. Both music and animation have been influential on Chueh. Before he was a painter by profession, Chueh worked as a graphic designer, during which time he created E.X.P., a zine focused on IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) where he featured interviews with the likes of Aphex Twin and Luke Vibert. Lately, he's found inspiration in a well known indie band.
“'I've been listening to a lot of Spiritualized and some of their verses became the genesis of a lot of my paintings,” he said.
Anime and manga, in particular, were part of Chueh's formative years and he continues to keep up on both. In fact, we were initially going to conduct this interview at an anime shop in Monterey Park.
“I love Fullmetal Alchemist. I started reading the manga,” said Chueh. “Genshikin it's an anime and it's all about otaku culture. For manga, I've been reading D. Gray-Man. Berserk has been surprisingly good. I'm also checking out Nigima. For a while, I was really into Naruto, the second one, but then I lost track of it.”
Admittedly influenced by Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara and other Superflat artists' reflection on anime and manga, Chueh has similarly incorporated pop culture commentary in his own work.
“Audiences, I believe, want to see something that they can identify with, that they can connect with,” he said. “This entire low brow, pop surrealist American art, which is a lot more narrative, has a way of communicating with audiences, the same way that Superflat and Murakami have as well.”
One of the most striking examples of Chueh's incorporation of pop culture is in “My Life, My Melody,” a piece he created for Sanrio's 50th Anniversary show at Barker Hangar. In the painting, the famed bunny My Melody is holding her hat in hand, revealing small, almost catlike ears.
“I was thinking the hat is kind of like a clever disguise, it can hide anything,” he said. “We're assuming that My Melody is a rabbit with the ears, and I decided to remove the hat to reveal instead of full rabbit ears, little nubby ears.”
The painting, he said, has also been viewed as a commentary on feminine beauty standards.
“I didn't think of it at the time, my sister pointed out that it kind of ties into the breast aesthetic thing, some girls who think they have to have large breasts but, if they aren't endowed with those, they disguise it or create the illusion,” he said.
“I didn't think about it like that, but I can see where you're coming from,” Chueh added. “I thought that was great because My Melody and Hello Kitty is geared toward a more feminine audience. I'm sure there are a lot of women who can relate to that.”
Chueh's work frequently features grisly elements. In “Possessed,” his well known painting and toy that dates back to 2004, a bear stares at blood-stained hands, which he said was based on sayings like “the devil made me do it.” He stresses, though, that the My Melody piece was not reflecting the same cute-violent hybrid.
“I was afraid that some people might have gotten the interpretation that the ears were cut off because a lot of my work has that amputation narrative element,” he said. “I do my best to try not to incorporate any kind of violence into my Sanrio work just because it's Sanrio. There's no room for violence in Sanrio.”
With a focus on easily relatable characters, Chueh's work has found a strong following online. You can check out fan-created projects based on Chueh's work through his website.
“A lot of people have been graciously giving me credit and using my work as avatars. I love it,” he said. “If a person uses my work for personal reasons, maybe because they relate to it, I encourage that, even tattoos.”
Regardless of all the shows and press that Chueh has accumulated recently, it's the response from fans that stands as a testament to the fact that this artist has struck a cultural nerve. Selling paintings is amazing, but when someone has one of those pieces permanently inked onto his or her body, well, that's hardcore.