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At Tarpon Springs museum, go inside the mind of Dali protege Louis Markoya

“Louis Markoya: A Deeper Understanding” is on display at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art.
Louis Markoya stands before his 3D film, "Strange Attractors," at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College, where his exhibition "A Deeper Understanding" is on display.
Louis Markoya stands before his 3D film, "Strange Attractors," at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College, where his exhibition "A Deeper Understanding" is on display. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 23
Updated Sep. 25

TARPON SPRINGS — Decked out in a sequined jacket, chunky jewelry and a scarf draped around his neck, Louis Markoya matched his dynamic works on display on a recent Tuesday at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College.

A former protege of Salvador Dalí, Markoya combines painting, fractal geometry, mathematics and 3D holographic technology in his works that explore the human mind, thought and emotion. His work brings surrealism and nuclear mysticism into the digital age, achieving 3D images on 2D surfaces, a feat artists including Dalí have been trying to achieve for centuries.

“Louis Markoya: A Deeper Understanding,” a retrospective exhibition, is currently running at the Tarpon Springs museum. It features Markoya’s oil paintings using classical art techniques, sculptures, collaborative works by Dalí, LED-illuminated lenticular prints and a 3D film.

Heidi Kane of Wappingers, N.Y., and Ursula Raymond of New Port Richey read captions for artwork on display in Louis Markoya’s exhibit, "A Deeper Understanding," at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College in Tarpon Springs.
Heidi Kane of Wappingers, N.Y., and Ursula Raymond of New Port Richey read captions for artwork on display in Louis Markoya’s exhibit, "A Deeper Understanding," at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College in Tarpon Springs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Markoya’s vast body of work, much of it created since 2012, stretches through the gallery. Among the most astonishing pieces are the illuminated 3D holographic lenticular prints based on his oil paintings that take on the illusion of depth and movement when viewed from different angles.

"The Fluid Nature of Man," 2018, is an LED backlit 3D holographic lenticular image by Louis Markoya.
"The Fluid Nature of Man," 2018, is an LED backlit 3D holographic lenticular image by Louis Markoya. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
"Only Thought Can Rival Nature-Color" is an LED backlit 3D holographic lenticular image by artist Louis Markoya.
"Only Thought Can Rival Nature-Color" is an LED backlit 3D holographic lenticular image by artist Louis Markoya. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

When we met at the museum, Markoya, 70, said he thought that if Dalí were still alive, he would certainly be working with 3D lenticulars.

“He would have given a pound of flesh to make a 3D image on a 2D surface,” he said.

People who have viewed his works say they have never seen anything like it, and comment on his vivid imagination, Markoya said.

“It has nothing to do with imagination. It’s how you see things.”

But it’s fair to say that he sees things much differently than most of us.

Hailing from Connecticut, Markoya became interested in art as a middle school student, inspired by the work of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. But it wasn’t until after he graduated high school in 1968, when he saw a Salvador Dalí book at a local mall, that he realized what art could be.

He learned that Dalí spent winters in New York City at the St. Regis Hotel, so Markoya began calling the hotel and eventually reached Dalí himself. The artist told Markoya to come to the hotel. When he arrived, Markoya saw that Dalí took over the hotel bar on Sundays to hold court with luminaries. Realizing he had nothing to show Dalí, Markoya left without meeting him. A year later, he returned with a stack of photos of paintings he made based on Dalí's work. Markoya said Dalí critiqued the paintings, commenting that his own work was better. But in the end, he was open to collaboration.

That first year, 1971, Markoya did research, ran errands and cleaned brushes. Over time, Dalí recognized Markoya’s ideas and allowed him to start doing drawings, underpainting and work for him, which Markoya said “expanded exponentially when I started doing some things that he wanted to use, so it would be his.”

Markoya worked with Dalí for five years in New York City, often going to extreme lengths to find or make objects he wanted for projects or exhibitions. After making a lithograph on a 3D lenticular plastic called Rowlux, Dalí tasked Markoya with learning how to exploit the material to push it to its dimensional lengths. This piqued Markoya’s interest in lenticulars. He also assisted Dalí with holograms and stereoscopic paintings.

Heidi Kane of Wappingers, N.Y., and Ursula Raymond of New Port Richey watch "Strange Attractors," a 3D film created by artist Louis Markoya, part of his exhibit, "A Deeper Understanding."
Heidi Kane of Wappingers, N.Y., and Ursula Raymond of New Port Richey watch "Strange Attractors," a 3D film created by artist Louis Markoya, part of his exhibit, "A Deeper Understanding." [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In the exhibit, Markoya makes complex architectures of the human brain in some of his paintings. His 3D film, Strange Attractors, based on a mathematical theory, is an intense journey through the mind and thoughts. When viewed with 3D glasses (provided by the museum), elements come so close it’s hard to resist the urge to reach out for them.

The cerebral theme continues with a series of skull sculptures, especially with the nautilus and resin Pearlized Mohawk Logarithmic Evolutionary Skull. Markoya said he envisioned a cranium with room for bigger brains.

"Pearlized Mohawk Logarithmic Evolutionary Skull," from 2015, is a nautilus and resin assemblage by Louis Markoya, on display at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art.
"Pearlized Mohawk Logarithmic Evolutionary Skull," from 2015, is a nautilus and resin assemblage by Louis Markoya, on display at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

He has created a series based on the pandemic, in which he depicts the virus as human figures, because humans are responsible for the proliferation of the disease, he said.

"We Are Stardust," a 3D holographic lenticular image by artist Louis Markoya, is from his series on the coronavirus. It's on display at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College in Tarpon Springs.
"We Are Stardust," a 3D holographic lenticular image by artist Louis Markoya, is from his series on the coronavirus. It's on display at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College in Tarpon Springs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
The coronavirus “is the alien that has crippled the world by taking away what we know as being human, desiring love, and the touch of another,” artist Louis Markoya wrote of his painting “The Virus.”
The coronavirus “is the alien that has crippled the world by taking away what we know as being human, desiring love, and the touch of another,” artist Louis Markoya wrote of his painting “The Virus.” [ Courtesy of Louis Markoya ]

A series of oil paintings is dedicated to Markoya’s influences, including Benoit Mandelbrot, Albert Einstein, numerous musical figures and, of course, Dalí. He includes himself in the show with the digital print A Deeper Understanding, Louis Markoya Self Portrait.

“A Deeper Understanding, Louis Markoya Self Portrait” from 2021, is on display at Markoya’s exhibit, “A Deeper Understanding” at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College in Tarpon Springs.
“A Deeper Understanding, Louis Markoya Self Portrait” from 2021, is on display at Markoya’s exhibit, “A Deeper Understanding” at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College in Tarpon Springs. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Fluid Nature of Salvador Dalí comes from a series inspired by Siamese fighting fish. When asked what Dalí would have thought of the painting, Markoya said he would be fine with it, as any publicity is good publicity.

"The Fluid Nature of Dali," an oil painting on canvas, in included in Louis Markoya's "A Deeper Understanding" at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art through Feb. 6, 2022.
"The Fluid Nature of Dali," an oil painting on canvas, in included in Louis Markoya's "A Deeper Understanding" at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art through Feb. 6, 2022. [ Courtesy of Louis Markoya ]

Markoya has some wild stories about his time and collaborations with Dalí, revealed via QR codes throughout the exhibit that take viewers to video interviews. More anecdotes can be found on his website, louismarkoya.com.

This black-and-white photograph made by Kevin Carbone, which shows Louis Markoya, left, sitting with Salvador Dalí in 1973, is on display in Markoya’s exhibit, "A Deeper Understanding."
This black-and-white photograph made by Kevin Carbone, which shows Louis Markoya, left, sitting with Salvador Dalí in 1973, is on display in Markoya’s exhibit, "A Deeper Understanding." [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In 1974, Markoya traveled with Dalí to his home in Spain to help him open the Dalí Theatre and Museum in Figueres. Markoya visited him at the St. Regis one more time in 1976. After that, they drifted apart.

“Leaving him, I didn’t know what I wanted to paint (for) myself,” Markoya said. He knew how to paint like Dalí but didn’t want to compete with him, because he considered him the master of his style.

So he stopped doing art and focused his creativity into a 34-year career as a research scientist and engineer. He has more than 30 patents that use complex animations and holography. He’s been creating 3D graphics since the 1980s, and in more recent years became interested in 3D fractals (infinitely complex patterns that are created by repeating a simple process in an ongoing feedback loop).

After seeing the advancements in lenticular technology around 2012, Markoya began to experiment with computer software to turn his oil paintings into 3D artworks. His process starts with a high-resolution digital image of the painting. Using special software, he designates where each element will fall in depth in the picture. This process is detailed in full in a label at the museum.

Markoya moved to St. Petersburg in 2020 and has been steadily creating. The amount of work in the exhibition shows how prolific Markoya is, and with the 3D works, how he’s mastered an innovative art form.

The museum has partnered with St. Petersburg College’s Innovation Lab and Online Learning faculty to bring Markoya’s art to life in virtual reality, which will be featured in a special program this fall. This will certainly offer an even deeper understanding of Markoya’s vision.

If you go

“Louis Markoya: A Deeper Understanding.” On view through Feb. 6, 2022. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Free, $10 suggested donation. Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art at St. Petersburg College, 600 E Klosterman Road, Tarpon Springs. 727-712-5762. leeparattner.org.