An Animated Appetite: The World of Henry Loustau

An essay written by J. Susan Isaac, Professor of Art History, Towson State University
"Dreams and whimsy permeate the world of Henry Loustau. At first glance, these dreams appear fanciful, childlike, full of innocence, but we learn fairly soon that we are caught in a world where danger lurks over every gumdrop hill. Sheep fly across the night sky above the head of a recumbent striped figure. However, these are not the sweet animals we count when we can't sleep. Instead, these soft, fuzzy creatures soar over our heads, their mouths pulled into wide frozen smiles revealing sharply pointed teeth. Life is fraught with danger, especially during those
Oil Painting, "Not to Worry" by Henry Loustau

moments when we need to feel safest. Drawn into Loustau's universe by bright colors and playful subjects, the innocent observer is both delighted and afraid.

Loustau is able to achieve this careful balance between ecstasy and terror through his manipulation of the natural environment. Musical rhythms, sensual creatures and lush surroundings compete with crystalline forms, hard surfaces and sharp edges. What we see is almost always not what we get in the work of Loustau. His images rely on narratives that are allegorical tales of the loss of innocence and the fall of mankind. But in this universe redemption is at hand, and a sense of optimism is achieved through Loustau's exploration of life's great quest, the search for new beginnings.

All ends lead to fresh starts and Loustau's creations reveal a world that is a place of highly saturated colors, wonderfully defined rolling hills

and lollypop trees. Often underlying these images of childhood, of the "Yellow Brick Road" and "Candyland", is a carefully controlled eroticism. In the most obvious examples, strange dogs couple with each other and sexually charged human figures dance next to one another. The colors are lush, hot, seductive, while the forms are sharp, hard and pointed. Here, pleasure is closely associated with danger.

The relationship between Loustau's images of dogs, horses and cows and that of folk works of similar subject and form is important. An academically trained artist, Loustau consciously relies upon folk themes and techniques. However, his work is allegorical while true folk objects function on a single level only. They are purely about their subject. Although Loustau's work pays homage to the tradition, the artist cannot negate his knowledge and training. Like the carefully controlled balance between chasteness and guile found in his paintings, there is, too, a symmetry between folk heritage and modern art.

This affinity between opposite artistic legacies is not difficult to understand when considered in light of Loustau's background. He grew up in West Virginia in a rural area surrounded by examples of true Americana, yet was educated at exclusive private schools. His family is sophisticated, his father from France, his mother from Chicago, and Loustau has traveled to Europe numerous times to visit relatives and study western art and culture. It is precisely this combination of the naive and the sophisticated that merges in his images, producing a body of work that utilizes American folk art without reducing it to simple convention.

The artist recalls everyone in his family making things. His father is a contractor, and at a very young age Loustau learned how to design and build structures. In fact, Loustau initially studied architecture in college and his knowledge of three-dimensional fabrication plays an important role in his art. Many of his paintings are part of a larger work, a constructed framework that then becomes part of a still larger structure, and installation. Doorways, windows, paths and columns are interspersed with more traditional two-dimensional paintings. Much of the work is even comprised of painted objects, rather than simply painted canvases....Because of his desire to remain aloof, far from the urbane and sophisticated New York art scene, Loustau actively chooses to live in rural Pennsylvania. He collects odd toys and quaint objects and enjoys the play and art-making of his own children. New housing tracts go up daily around his older white-stuccoed house, and he both fears and recognizes the inevitable loss of his neighboring corn fields. He has long been fascinated with man's imprint on the landscape. His many visits to France and the tradition of the formal French garden, so much a part of the European landscape, are important sources for his art.

Oil painting, "Zach" by Henry Loustau
Oil painting, "Hallelujah Junction" by Henry Loustau

Deep in Loustau's memory are the organized fields and paths of Europe. He sees them as symbolic of man's attempt to control nature, and is fascinated by their forms though saddened by the changes imposed on the landscape.

In Searching for Buried Treasure Loustau examines a French folk tale told to him as a child by this father. It is the story of a dying father who tells his two sons that buried treasure lies in the field he is leaving them and admonishes them to take care of the field. The first son digs for treasure, constantly searching for his prize, while the second son plows and harvests the field. In his painting, flat kite-like black birds fly over the rounded fields. They are ominous looking creatures, harbingers of death and gloom.

Searching for Buried Treasure is characteristic of the artist's style and choice of content. It reminds us of childhood games, like "Candyland", where we take a trip with penalties and rewards. In this instance the journey is about the value of nature and the control man exerts, always shaping, digging, and plowing the earth's surface. One son is short-sighted and leaves the earth scarred with holes;

Oil painting, "Searching for Buried Treasure"  by Henry Loustau

the other understands the value of land as a source of wealth for his family. But he, too, leaves the land altered, molded and shaped to his desired form, akin to the housing tracts growing up around Loustau's home and studio in Pennsylvania....

The power of Loustau's work is the artist's concern for the form before content and his utilization of form as an instrument of content. Highly saturated colors and carefully delineated shapes dance in a uniquely American rhythm that is reminiscent of jazz. The shaping of the landscape may emerge from the assimilation of the European and American landscape views, but the musical tone of Loustau's imagery is distinctly American.


More Paintings...

Oil painting, "Atlas", by Henry Loustau

Oil painting, "Now Listen Carefully" by Henry Loustau

"Atlas" (1988) oil on canvas, 48 x 66 inches


"Now Listen Carefully" (1993) oil on canvas, 41 x 57 inches



Click to enlarge

oil pastel on paper, "Blow Me Down Fool" by Henry Loustau
oil pastel on paper,"Monsieur Courbeaux Sur La Route..." by Henry Loustau
oil pastel on paper, "Fenced Trees" by Henry Loustau
oil pastel on paper, "The Love Inside..." by Henry Loustau
colored pencil on paper, "Landscape With House" by Henry Loustau
oil pastel on paper, "Mama, Papa, Junior, Baby" by Henry Loustau
"Le Duc and Delightful: A Love Story with Baking", illustration for a children's story


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