7 Sins, Redrawn

Lowbrow artist Luke Chueh travels down The Primrose Path

Is there a better way to express the sin of jealousy than to copy your peer’s work?

Artists Luke Chueh and Juan Muniz are doing just that in The Primrose Path, their joint show at Brett Wesley Gallery, which depicts the seven deadly sins. Taking their cue from a very old saying, the two have created a “path” marked by temptation and overindulgence. In Chueh’s work, this often means moments when luck turns to greed and pride. To illustrate jealousy, for example, the two have swiped each other’s well-known characters, Chueh’s bear and Muniz’s child in a bunny suit.

In the weeks before the show, Los Angeles-based Chueh, 38, was carefully adapting his style to mesh with Muniz’s—softening his typically bold color palette and infusing the character with his own dark humor. That distinctive style has not only come to represent Chueh’s brand, but also the still-blossoming Pop-Surrealism movement in Los Angeles. He emerged from the underground art scene, with his first L.A. show in the roving gallery Cannibal Flower in 2003 and quickly became one of the biggest names in town. His work has appeared in magazines such as Juxtapoz and the cover of Giant Robot. His prints and toys have a reputation for selling out. Even Luddites will recognize Chueh’s artwork, which appeared on Fall Out Boy’s 2008 Folie à Deux album cover.

“I love the idea of remixing, whether it be music or art or whatever,” Chueh says. His website features a large section of fan interpretations of his work. He himself consistently remixes cultural symbols and old sayings in his paintings. He has also participated in a number of large L.A. group shows based on pop-cultural themes and has re-imagined everything from cult cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force to Hello Kitty in his unique style.

“When I first started doing the Vegas show, I was trying to think of the Vegas things,” he says of the challenge of using his “signature elements” to portray sin in Sin City.

In order to avoid cliché, Chueh offered a twist on traditional casino imagery. For example, Chueh selected an arcade classic (instead of, say, blackjack) to illustrate Pride: Whac-A-Mole. In “Wack,” one mole pops up from a hole as the others dodge impending doom. The mole’s head is inflated and his middle finger points toward the oncoming mallet. The piece exhibits the sense of humor and play on cultural references that mark Chueh’s work.

Central to Chueh’s art are a menagerie of characters who repeatedly appear in his paintings. They include a bear, rabbit, chicken and monkey, none of whom have names. (The prideful mole is a new character.) Each one is simply designed. The bear, who Chueh says represents himself, is snow-white with large black eyes and often appears without a mouth.

“We live in a culture where mascots, icons, logos are part of our world,” says Chueh, whose work is heavily informed by his educational background in graphic design. “We identify with things by a logo.”

For each of his paintings, Chueh selects the character that best serves the story he wants to convey. Often, he plays upon the traditional representations of animals, turns of phrase and cultural symbols. In “Stabbed in the Back,” which represents wrath in The Primrose Path, his rabbit is stabbed “Julius Caesar-style” by carrots. Gluttony, titled “All You Can Eat,” is represented by a pig, and lust is embodied by a bird and a bee (new characters for Chueh) tearing each other apart. Chueh depicts greed with a bloodied Maneki Neko (titled “Blood Money Neko”), a cat-shaped good-luck symbol that originated in Japan and is frequently seen in stores in California.

“I’m definitely interested in expanding on my character base,” says Chueh, whose business card features a self-portrait of him ankle-chained to his bear-head. “If the situation calls for me to bring in those animals again, if the ideas warrant it, I will definitely be doing so.”

But, of course, he has to find the perfect story for the mole and other new characters. “I’m not the type of artist that is going to create random characters for the sake of random characters.”

The Primrose Path helps mark the start of a very busy year for Chueh. Right before the show’s opening, his work appeared in three different group shows across the United States. The group shows will continue throughout the year, including a massive tribute to My Little Pony in Los Angeles in May. Chueh will show in Chicago in September and Japan at the end of the year.

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