(Visual) KRISTEN LIU-WONG
Los Angeles-based artist Kristen Liu-Wong creates vivid scenes of violence and sensuality. Her works are filled with references to Greek myths, science fiction comics and movies, erotic Japanese art, and consumer products. In this interview, she discusses her inspirations, the psychology of painting, her product and fashion designs, and her current shared exhibit with Jillian Evelyn at the Corey Helford Gallery.
Caution: NSFW images below
Interview by Tyler Nesler
How has your style evolved in ways that have surprised you? What do you think the most striking differences are between your earliest professional work and what you are producing now?
The work I was doing right after college (so when I first started trying to show and began approaching art directors) still looks related to the work I do now but it’s much simpler in certain ways, much more directly inspired by folk art, the figures are more stickish and generalized and the palette is much warmer (though still colorful).
There are a lot of influences at play with your imagery, such as Shunga, Greek myths, and comic book science fiction. What do you think ties all of these influences together for you? In what ways do you think you've made these blends into something uniquely your own?
I love the aesthetics all of these things and I love the deeply human, super dramatic stories that can be found in all of them too — some of my influences are more classical or traditional in their nature but I also grew up working class as a fourth generation Chinese American in San Francisco, so I saw things like cartoons, graffiti, comic books, reality TV and those are just as influential as the other stuff. I’m not sure that I consciously think about how to blend all these sources into something that is mine — I just paint what I like, how I want to paint it.
What would you say often initially inspires a new artwork for you? Is it specific figures or stories or creatures that emerge which you feel compelled to depict, or do you begin more with one of the many little idiosyncratic details seen in your work and build out from there?
I can be inspired by a specific artwork or movie I’ve seen, I can also be inspired by an event that’s happening in my life at the time of the piece’s creation, but sometimes I’ll work on a piece just knowing that I want to paint black marble in it at some point. I love buying art books and whenever I feel really stuck I’ll let myself sit and go through books to try and spark something.
I think of your imagery as a kind of candy colored chaos, there's a vibrancy to it which is sometimes overwhelming, like a sugar endorphin rush. What's your state of mind when you're deep in the middle of working on a piece? Do you feel as carried away and feral as some of the figures and scenes you depict? Does it ever get exhausting to live in those spaces for long periods of time?
Painting can be equal parts therapeutic, fun, challenging, immersive and frustrating and it changes regularly as you work on a piece. I’m actually quite a controlled, fussy sort so my approach to painting is pretty tidy and contained although I have been trying to force myself to get a bit looser sometimes.
Decadence and madness are two words I think of most when I look at your work. With many of your classical references, there's a sense of the fall of Rome or a collapse of an ancient Greek state, with people caught up in a frenzy of escapist sex and violence. Right now it can sometimes feel as if our own society has sunk into deep set political corruption and venality — how much do you think the tone of your work is reflecting the zeitgeist, either overtly or indirectly?
To be quite honest, I don’t typically think about current events or political issues when I’m coming up with work. I live in our society so of course I’m sure I’m influenced by the conversations everyone is having, but my work is more about the emotional inner world of humans.
Your vibrant style adds a fresh aesthetic to many mediums — you've designed shoes for the Vans Custom Shop, a clothing collection for RVCA, customized hand painted bags for Adidas, a beer can label for Marz Brewing Company's Gay IPA...Where do you see your focus with product and fashion design going in the near future? Do you want to do more of it? Have you considered launching your own design house or clothing lines?
I majored in Illustration and I love the different challenges that commercial work gives you (as opposed to gallery work) so I do illustration as a way of getting to work with a variety of interesting clients, doing things I might not always necessarily do, in ways I might not do if it was my own work and I rely on the income to supplement what I make from selling work. As I’m getting more varied and exciting opportunities for projects, my only plan is to keep working and stay open to new things. My true love is painting and drawing so I don’t ever plan on doing something with design or fashion in such an involved way, but I would love to do something like design an opera for the Met or work on a line with a fashion house like James Jean has.
You've done some cool and slyly funny short video animation works. Are there any new animations in progress? If you were approached to work on something longer form, such as an animated series, would you consider a project of that scope?
I’m pretty terrible at animation so I’m glad you liked those videos! I definitely don’t have any plans for the future but I would love to work with someone like Adult Swim on an animation so that way I would only have to provide art and concepts — I don’t think I have a whole series in me but I’d love to do something that was only a season long or even a short film.
Right now you've got a shared exhibit (through October 26) with the artist Jillian Evelyn at the Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles titled Not a Flower Alone. You are both exhibiting work that is floral-themed. How did this project come about? What got you both decide to focus on the language and symbolism of flowers?
We wanted to pick a theme that was loose enough that we wouldn’t feel tied to something too specific as we worked on the show over multiple months but we also wanted to make work that was cohesive and felt connected to each other in some way. Personally I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of secret or coded communications and flowers have had such a prominent place in mankind’s story, so floriography seemed like a great avenue to explore. Also I had just seen an exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite work on a visit to the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, so I was feeling particularly inspired by the lush symbolism and rich beauty of those works.
Jillian's style is much more minimalist than your work. In what ways do you think your different styles compliment each other thematically or otherwise? How do you think your works play off each other when exhibited together?
I’ve kind of described it as we both have similar impulses in our work — those impulses are just expressed differently. Her minimalism complements my maximalism — instead of competing with each other they balance each other out.
What's next in the Kristen Liu-Wong multiverse? Any future shows on the horizon or anything else you would like people to know about?
I have a lot of things brewing but I can’t talk about too much yet! I’ll be in the 6th Annual Art Collector Starter Kit group show with Corey Helford Gallery opening Dec 14th, and at the end of this month I’m dropping a new silkscreen edition with 1xRun. Von Zos (my publisher) and I plan on releasing a very special edition book of my sketchbook in December, and in November of 2020 Luke Pelletier and I will be having a collaborative show at Superchief L.A.
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