Working in his retro animation style, Travis Lampe takes us on a surreal adventure with an unusual cast of creatures who are disturbing and endearing, humorously cartoonish and delightfully expressive. Travis was working as an art director in Chicago, designing ads for breakfast cereals and well-known purveyors of inexpensive furniture, until he began his slow explosion into the art and illustration scene.
Inspired by old-timey cartoons, Dr. Seuss, moving pictures and classical fine art, he has created a trippy fantasy world populated by mischievous rubbery characters⎯the more elbow-less the better. Producing paintings and illustrations and designing toys (including a magic mushroom pin), his work often involves sadness, angst, ridiculous violence or drunkenness, but always in a fun way. After all, mysterious fun is one of the most important factors in everything he does.
His latest body of work appears at Corey Helford Gallery (through March 30) in an exhibition titled Tales Best Left Untold. The exhibition brings together works inspired by storybook tales that you heard as a child, but with “way more punching and quite a bit more booze.” These works feature a whimsical cast of elbow-less characters going about their crazy business. For this show, like all the others, Travis painted things that make him laugh.
PRØHBTD spoke with Travis about his latest show, the stories that inform these works, the evolution of his distinct style, the importance of humor and much more.
You used to work as an art director, delivering a number of commercial projects. How did you venture from advertising into the art world?
When I first got started in the art world, I was also working as a freelance art director and illustrator, so while I had a lot of time to devote to painting, I wasn’t suddenly dependent on art income. I’m a full-time creative director now and do all my art in my spare time, which means early mornings and weekends. To anybody looking for advice on this, I’d say, unless you have some means of support, like a secret treasure cache or an anonymous, wealthy benefactor, don’t quit your day job. Commercial illustration is a nice way to go if you can get the work, but it wasn’t for me—too many hours alone in my basement. It’s a nice basement, but still.
Could you tell us something about your latest body of work exhibited at Corey Helford Gallery?
It’s fairytale based, but with way more punching and booze. I think that about sums it up.
Like your previous work, these pieces are a twisted and surreal take on the children’s story books. Which stories and situations informed them the most?
Mostly I comb through old picture books from the late 1800s up to the 1930s or so until I find something that strikes me as funny or weird—it doesn’t usually take long—and then I mash things up into something new, or just come up with an idea inspired by the feel of the stories. Pie Heist is a good example of the former. It’s a mish-mosh of some generic Tom Thumb illustrations and a “birds in a pie” scenario, which, as an aside, is super gross. I thought, well, what if the three-inch tall guy was a criminal? Perfect cover? Yes, inside a pie. Surprise! Give me your wallet.
Do you have a favorite piece in the show?
I have a few favorites, but if I had to pick… Cloud Puncher. I like the way it turned out. The clothing is borrowed straight from a very old pre-Disney Snow White illustration.
Fun seems to be a common thread running through your work. Could you tell us something about the importance of humor in your practice?
That’s all I got, so to speak⎯the only thing I have to offer. I deal with real life through humor, so my painting is no different.
Your iconography is very distinct and consistent, featuring characters such as gloomy worm-like beings, rubbery trees and figures with bandy shoelace arms. How did it evolve and develop over time?
I saw Steamboat Willie at a matinee when I was a kid at some sort of week-long Disney-through-the-decades marathon, and it was all over. The weirdness of the rubber arms and the creatures bouncing in time to the music⎯so different from the then-current '70s Mickey Mouse⎯was instantly appealing, though I didn’t start drawing that way until much later, around 8th grade. There’s also a lot of Fleisher and Dr. Suess influence in my work. I took a lot of stuff and kind of mushed it together.
Although whimsical and endearing, a lot of your characters are also very sad. Where does all this sadness come from?
I’m not sure, but it is cathartic to paint those characters, and the end result is, I think, not actually sad. So technically what I’m painting is more ridiculousness than sadness. I’m not sad all the time! … I’m not.
As a gifted storyteller, what do you think makes a visual narrative successful?
A sense of mystery. Things left unexplained.
In addition to the illustrations and paintings, your practice also extends to designer toys. How does this creative process differentiate from your two-dimensional work?
For me not much, other than being more graphic than artistic in execution.
Could you reveal some of your future plans and projects?
Yes! I have a couple of new vinyl toys that will be dropping in the fall at a small solo show in Philadelphia. In addition, I’ve got some very limited-run toys I’m producing myself planned for… um… the very near future. Still working on that plan. On top of that, I’m also painting for various group shows and working on my Drip Pins set 2, among other projects. It’s busy art times around here.