Louis Masai: MEAT my Friends @ Vertical Gallery, Chicago
‘MEAT my Friends,’ which runs from May 1-22 at Vertical’s 1016 N. Western Ave. location, assembles 13 new paintings of varying sizes, all on reclaimed wood, alongside a series of hand-embellished vintage lithographs. This one-of-a-kind exhibit also features a custom-built chicken-coop installation titled ‘What came first?’ complete with webcam-enabled, remote-control chickens — developed by Louis in collaboration with artist and creative engineer RoboJ — letting viewers experience the show and explore the gallery setting in real time from the comforts of home.
‘MEAT my Friends’ urges patrons to contemplate humankind’s relationship to the myriad creatures who share our planet, and endure great pain and suffering to keep us fed. “This show is about the animals that humans digest,” Louis says. “The word ‘MEAT’ is the first clue for the audience. The animals in these paintings are not considered animals — they’re considered something else, which for me is very troubling, as an artist and as a human being.”
Louis renders this menagerie of cows, chickens and even exotic animals as images he calls “patchwork quilt toys” — brightly colored, dazzlingly intricate patches, inspired by world fabrics and popular culture.
“These paintings are based off toys. I try to make the animals look like they’ve been stuffed with fibers, and that a kid could give them a big hug,” Louis says. “It’s my warning: if you don’t conserve and look after these species, there won’t be any rhinos anymore. All that will be left is a toy — a souvenir, or a relic.”
The patchwork quilt motif, which sews together images encompassing a wide range of cartoon characters and other pop culture signifiers, further underlines Louis’s commitment to conservation and his distaste for mass consumerism.
“Patchwork quilting is traditional. It’s something humans have done forever, but we don’t do it anymore,” he says. “The reason we don’t is because of fast fashion: we don’t need to fix our socks or trousers, or stitch together all of our kids’ clothes to make a blanket. We just throw it in a bin, and Amazon delivers us the next best thing. I’m juxtaposing that with very unusual patterns you wouldn’t see on a traditional patchwork quilt — Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Peppa Pig. These things exist inside a society that no longer patchwork quilts. The idea is to refresh something that is past, and make it trendy and cool again.”
In addition to these paintings — all of which are presented on pieces of disassembled vintage furniture, wood that Masai lovingly restores with varnish and beeswax — ‘MEAT my Friends’ features roughly a dozen lithographs culled from the pages of a vintage picture book on wildflowers, each illustration newly embellished with paintings of bees.
Bees are a signature throughout Louis’s body of work: in 2016, he traveled to the U.S. to mount ‘The Art of Beeing,’ a two-month, 12-city mural painting tour that commemorated 20 different endangered stateside species, each stitched up by bees. “I can paint a bee in less than hour, which means I can paint in some pretty illegal spots and just get away with it and run away in time,” Louis chuckles. “Everybody can appreciate the connection between bees and humans, and everybody knows that bees are under pressure from pesticides. They’re nature’s slave, and nature doesn’t function without pollinators. If the bees are gone, we’re fucked.”
‘MEAT my Friends’ extends far beyond the two-dimensional work gracing Vertical Gallery’s walls. ‘What came first?’ was created from papier-mâché chickens fabricated using broken-down blue cardboard egg boxes: these chickens dwell inside a wire cage with mirrors on three of its four sides, and gallery visitors can look inside to experience what Louis calls “an eternal battery-farm chicken coop.” (Battery cages are the principal form of housing for laying hens: they are deemed to reduce aggression and cannibalism, but severely restrict movement and limit many natural behaviors, often resulting in exactly the outcomes they were developed to neutralize.)
“Because we’re in lockdown, and people can’t get to the gallery in the same numbers, I’m going to open up this show to the web,” Louis says. “Inside the eyes of the chickens are webcams. You can be invited into the gallery via the internet, and you can look through the webcams into an infinite chicken cage. There also will be wild, free-range robotic chickens. These robots can be manipulated by somebody sitting at home on their computer. You’ll get a login code, and you’ll be able to move the chicken around the gallery.”
‘What came first?’ encourages viewers to consider the difference between a battery-farm chicken egg and a free-range chicken egg, Louis explains. “For me, it’s very important to find many different avenues to coax someone into the conversation about the food we eat.”
Louis was raised in Surrey, just southwest of London adjoining the River Thames, and grew up directly above his parents’ restaurant. His father, a chef, was himself an accomplished painter as well, and his creative philosophies and techniques remain a fundamental influence on Masai’s own work: “He taught me how lines connect, and about the interrelations between colors,” he says.
After completing a fine art degree at Falmouth University in Cornwall, Louis relocated to London, where he honed his patchwork-quilt ethos across a series of striking, large-scale murals depicting rare and endangered species. In 2018, Louis curated ‘Missing,’ an installation at London’s Crypt Gallery (a genuine catacomb below St. Pancras Church); he’s also exhibited in Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles, and created murals throughout the U.K. as well as the States, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, Shanghai and Malawi. Louis currently lives in seaside Margate, and is at work on a fully-illustrated vegan cookbook.
MEAT my Friends
May 1 – 22, 2021
Opening day: Saturday May 1, 11a-6p
Vertical Gallery, 1016 N. Western Ave., Chicago