Luke Chueh And The Unbearable Changes

words by belle

Adorable cuddly bears. With bloody hands…? Placing these together would seem a little odd but the clash of two opposing worlds is inevitably seen in Luke Chueh’s artworks. As a pop-surrealist artist of about 16 years, he balances the order in chaos, and chaos in order. Luke merges two conflicting elements together such as cute with the macabre, and comedy with tragedy. With the use of minimal colour schemes, he transforms himself into a lovable bear-like creature with cat-shaped ears. However, his signature ‘bear’ character is placed in ill-fated situations, making his paintings minimal in design yet complex in its narrative.

Painting full-time for more than a decade, Luke’s work has evolved throughout the years. Despite keeping his juxtaposing theme consistent throughout the works he published, changes can be seen between certain timeframes. At the start of his artistic journey, it was in-your-face angst, with murky dull hues. Slowly it transitioned, with slightly more contrast of colour and a slash of violent themes. Now, he stood rooted in his signature bear, while experimenting with different painting techniques and methodologies at the same time.

We caught Luke pasting a black tape over his ‘Hello Lukey’ figurine onto his booth at our convention, to remake the controversial work of Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian”. Instead of paying $120 000 for a piece of ‘contemporary art’, we asked him a series of questions about the evolution of his artistic imagery.

You did a series of works inspired by Dante’s Inferno in 9 September 2009. What is it about the poems that inspired you?

I didn’t know much about Dante’s Inferno when I first conceived the idea in a jail cell. I was like you know what would be fun? If you do a Dante’s Inferno with cute little animal creatures like it’s done for children. I tried reading the poems, it’s very hard to understand and my Italian friend told me that I got a lot of it wrong. But it was a fun experimental series. I wanted it to be on September 9th 2009, because it’s 999 or 666 backwards.

Who is your favourite poet, and what do you enjoy most about their work?

I don’t know if he’s a poet, but I’ve found myself inspired by the lyrics of Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of an English Rock band, Pulp. Some of his story-telling and lyrics have resonated with me, in one form or another influenced the narrative of my paintings.
I realise that simple, sometimes murky tones of colours are commonly used in your work. Do you have any specific reason to the colour palette in your art?

I started monochromatically because I didn’t really know how to paint. So I remember seeing the works of Camille Rose Garcia, and a Bay Area-based artist; he use simple monochromatic colour schemes and I thought to myself, “I can do that”. And so I did it. They are the first two art shows that I saw when I first moved to LA in 2003. I’m still big fans of both of them, they kind of showed me that if you really develop it, you can make it work.

In podcast of Dark Art Society, you mentioned that you’re in a subsequent recovery, 9 years of sobriety. The interviewer also mentioned Kurt Cobain’s quote about the “comfort of sadness”.Has sobriety changed anything about your own “comfort of sadness”?

It has made me have to face it and to work on it. My sobriety also had a pretty big solid influence on my artwork. I think that the use of macabre, blood images could be directly associated with my addiction. When I stopped using, I find myself shying away from the imagery. I was an intravenous drug user, so I saw my own blood all the time.
When I finally stopped I kind of felt that the metaphor did not pertain to me as much. I’ve been trying to find new ways of illustrating my narratives or how I really feel. It’s been challenging, both the sobriety and the evolution of my artwork. It’s hard to change what you do because you get so comfortable and used to doing something. Obviously I still use the blood on my hands imagery out of habit.

Beginning in 2003 as a pop-surrealist artist, do you think your work has evolved/changed & in what way?

It has changed in the sense that I am much more confident as a painter now. When I first started, I really didn’t know what I was doing. Well, I had a basic idea because I took one painting class and drawing class each but then it took me eight years before I started painting in LA. I felt like I had to start from scratch and learnt to be confident in myself. Selling artwork had taught me that I have the potential in saying something that resonates me with my audience. It’s something that most artists strive to be able to do; create artwork that others identify with, to connect and want to be a part of, or even share.

Now that I’ve gotten old, and painting full-time for approximately 16 years, I’ve gone through different kinds of phases and feelings in my career. The first 5 or 6 years, I loved it. The next 5 to 7 years, I hated it. Now I’ve finally kind of settled in and learnt to embrace it. Rather than fighting with the fact that I’m known for this character, I’m using the character to explore different methodologies and techniques in painting to express myself.

From the interviews you’ve done, your favourite genre of music is broad. What’s your all-time favourite album, what about it do you enjoy?

Albums in music are constantly evolving with the experience and the age of the audience. When I was in college, one of my favourite albums was Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine and I still love that album but I don’t identify with it as much anymore. In the late college years, I was a huge fan of Pulp’s Different Class. Somewhere in between, I was really into The Stone Roses.

I don’t have an all-time favourite album but I do have an EP. It is DJ Shadow’s What Does Your Soul Look Like, and that is an amazing EP. You can just sit back in a comfy chair with headphones or speakers, relax, let the music sweep into you and let it take you away.

One of your latest work is a personal rendition of “Hello Kitty, what about this Sanrio character inspired you, did it play a big part of your childhood?

I definitely grew up with Hello Kitty around me, is one of those characters that came up with my research in character design. When I first started painting, I decided I wanted to do something with this anthropomorphize character. I looked at Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, various cartoon characters across the western and eastern spectrum. The one character that popped up and have been consistent is Hello Kitty.

Due to its longevity, I wanted to create a design of a character that could survive the ages. I know what my audience is now, but I don’t know what they’ll be in the future. I want to make sure that my character wouldn’t look dated with a contemporary style of aesthetic. It’s such a clean fresh design, which is the reason why my bear design doesn’t have a mouth, limited down to two eyes and the nose, and cat-shaped ears.

A lot of people think that my character is a bear, they’re entitled to those feelings and they’re not far off. But what I was really interested in was a character that’s just cute, not a specific animal, just cute. So that people could look at it, empathise with it, feel like they could be close to it.
That’s the reasons why I chose Hello Kitty, but I didn’t like the body proportions, so I decided to use my own human-like proportions.

No matter how dark his narratives can be, his adorable artworks of cute cuddly animals made it bearable for the masses.

As an artist of 16 long years, Luke has gone through multiple phases in his career, where it changed the work he produced. However, he found consistency with these changes by staying true to his signature elements. By placing the anthropomorphised version of himself into unfortunate situations, it successfully allowed people to empathise with his paintings. Thought it contains simple designs, it also includes a fusion of intricate feelings; intriguing, puzzling, friendly and sorrowful all at once. With his ability to balance two opposing elements of cute and brute, Luke’s artwork continues to speak to the hearts of many.