The world of Michael C. Hsiung is a simple and carefree realm made up of distinctive lines and humor, unique characters and strange situations; it is full of mermen with impressive facial hair, giant and burly acrobatic creatures that are half man-half animal, unicorn sheep and bearded ladies. His human characters are reminiscent of bizarre Russian nesting dolls, always involving something awkward or hilarious. You've no doubt seen his work, whether it's in on a skateboard or surfboard, your friend's arm in tattoo form or in a fine art exhibition. Hsiung's work offers a refreshing, unpretentious melding of many different styles and genres of art, but is capable of keeping his content and creations light, funny and accessible. East Los Angeles College's Vincent Price Art Museum is hosting a solo exhibit of Hsiung's work in their Hoy Space, bringing the quirky mustached creatures of this local artist to a larger museum setting for all to enjoy.
Often inspired by mythology and folklore, Hsiung enjoys the humor and whimsy he has in life, also in his art work. "I think the humor and playfulness in my art just come from me--in the sense that I'm a goofball. But when I first started making drawings, I was really trying to make those around me laugh," Hsiung says. "Nowadays, I find that humor adds a level to art that can make it accessible, even if it is overt or not. Sometimes the humor I put in is accidental, obvious or subtle."
Hsiung has been drawing strange scenes and characters since his childhood, often stemming from his comic book fascination and his wild imagination. He loves the art of the story more than anything else. When he was little, his artwork usually consisted of ant on ant wars, comic book characters and men battling monsters. Though he had been drawing for as long as he can remember, he never thought he could make a career through his art until after college. Hsiung's sister, Pearl is also creatively inclined, drawn to paint and video as her materials of choice and was included in the "Made in L.A." exhibit in 2012, at the Hammer Museum.
Even with a degree in English Literature, Hsiung was always drawn to create stories using a visual vocabulary, eventually evolving from drawing strange things he saw in the world to creating a complex and comical narrative with sometime just one image or character.
"Being a hyper boy, I was pretty obsessed with cartoons, comics, and dungeons & dragons, growing up," he explains. "It wasn't until I was in college that I started drawing characters, but they were always me and well, I stopped drawing for a long time after that. I think I always got frustrated with not finding a visual vocabulary and topic I felt drawing about. It wasn't untill I started drawing again, in 2007 that I guess I started making characters--mostly men fighting animals at the time."
Out of all the characters Hsiung has brought to life, "the merman fellow" is his favorite. With his strong background in literature, Hsiung often explores mythology and folk lore as well as adding his own unique take on his human-animal hybrid stories. Many of his adventurous inked portraits can tell the viewer so much about a character, just by the accessories and expression of the creatures. Hsiung likes to work serially, creating a larger storyline and life cycle for his characters, and sometimes even finds a way to kill off a character, like his beloved merman, sadly killed by "the drink" along with a dozen or so other mermen, in a large merman-gathering that got out of control--though an occasional merman cameo in newer works is not uncommon.
Hsiung's peculiar caricatures have found their way to the surf and skate industry, as well as magazine cover art, clothing design, commissioned portraits, album covers, book illustrations and even tattoo art. Though Hsiung is not a tattooer himself, his designs are often used as tattoos, whether original, commissioned works, or just copies of his already created characters. "Tattoos are tough commissions, since they're going on someone's body and you always want them just right," says Hsiung. "Some clients have nice clear ideas and some are just totally random and just involve a unicorn--ha. It might just be the ultimate compliment though."
His artwork is almost always on exhibit somewhere. He shows in exhibits throughout L.A. and N.Y. and across the globe, and is currently preparing for four shows this month alone. Starting on June 7, Hsiung will have a solo show at the Vincent Price Museum at East Los Angeles College. The exhibition, "Who Cares Wins!" will feature many different works from Hsiung, including paintings, drawings, prints, tattoos and wood cuts.
In the upcoming show, it's basically a bunch of drawings that have been sitting in a box underneath my bed along with some new paintings I made specifically for the show," Hsiung says. "I've also included works that from various projects I've done, from drawings I did for a company in New Zealand called Blunt Umbrellas to laser wood cut out pieces.
Grumpy Bert in New York City will also have an exhibition of Hsiung's work opening on June 7, downtown L.A.'s Think Tank Gallery will be hosting a group show, Chilled Air, opening on June 21, which will include Hsiung's artwork, and he is also working on a special project for Vice X WB which should be out later this month.
Top Image: "SEXY SEASHELL" by Michael C. Hsiung.