Kristen Liu-Wong: Underworld Pool Party
If you were to awaken in a scene from a Kristen Liu-Wong painting, it might be with a sudden start, much like election results jolted a complacent, and in turn, complicit America. It’s no coincidence that Juxtapoz followed with successive covers featuring strong female protagonists, including the latest, a badass woman commissioned from Ms. Liu Wong (if you’re nasty). Gender equity stumbled back last year, so we must loudly express through art what we know to be true: women should rule, and if you try to grab us where it counts, you should get eaten by a Doberman.
As she grows into her own personal enlightenment, Kristen’s women express, and maybe embrace, the struggles of power and sexuality, painted in a tropical underworld setting. Representing a new generation that summons both folk art from the past and aesthetics of the future, the artist announces her presence and challenges the present.
Read this feature and more in the March 2017 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine.
Kristin Farr: Hello... Kristen. Do you have any weird feelings about Kristins with an “i?” I was wary of the ones with an “e,” but you changed my mind. You’re cool.
Kristen Liu-Wong: I do admit to being a bit suspicious of Kristins (and Kirstens, for that matter), but you’ve definitely changed my mind too. We’ve all gotta rep the sisterhood anyhow!
Word. So, tell me about this rad painting on our cover.
I first got the idea for this painting after noticing these two beautiful Dobermans around my neighborhood. Their aesthetic is fierce but also incredibly graceful, and they looked so cool that I mentioned wanting to paint a Doberman to my roommate. She showed me this amazing Dior ad from the ’70s by Chris Von Wangenheim, and it was perfect. I knew I wanted to do a portrait for the cover, so I went from there. I love pairing my women with really intense, feral-looking animals—their ferocity echoes the barely contained savagery and animalistic nature that I try to express in my women. These hybridized creatures look threatening but they actually often act as companions and occasionally protectors, in my mind.
There used to be a shy, awkward-sexy vibe to your work, and then it became more savage and empowered. What caused this shift?
I think it has to do with a couple of factors, the most obvious being that I’m just getting older and more comfortable with my own sexuality. I’ve had a lot of issues with men and intimacy in the past, and growing older allows you to work through those issues more. In the beginning, I was also very wary of making work that could be easily dismissed because it was sexy. I wanted to make work that was complex and depicted women that had more than their sex appeal to offer a viewer. I made my women have more boyish figures, and that’s how the cone boobs and creepy teeth came to be. The first time someone called my work sexy, I was actually confused because I specifically tried to paint women who weren’t pretty. But as I heard it and saw it for myself more, I grew to accept and embrace that aspect of my work. This year has really been about me exploring that part of my work and myself, and growing in confidence. I still try to paint complex women who aren’t necessarily traditionally beautiful, but now I’ve found a way to express their sexual natures too.
Sometimes when women paint naked women, it seems like they’re perpetuating objectification. You’re not doing that, obviously, but do you get any comments about the violence in your work, or any uncomfortable questions?
Part of the reason I didn’t want to make “sexy” work is because I don’t want to perpetuate the image of that blank ideal of beauty. And this is part of why it’s very important for me to explore sexuality and the female form in my art and become comfortable with sharing my own perspective about women as a woman. I don’t want my females to be props or ornaments—they’re active participants in their world with their own complex stories. I haven’t had an uncomfortable discussions about the violence in my work, but it does get the conversation started. One of the things that I think people find more interesting about my work is that dichotomy I always try to bring in—although the colors are very palatable and cute, the figures and everything that’s going on has this dangerous, gross streak.
How would the women in your paintings feel about the first female US presidential candidate losing to a troll?
They would be pissed as fuck but also not completely surprised.
If your paintings were real, what’s the first thing you would do if you woke up in one of those scenes, and what would it smell and sound like?
I would definitely look into arming myself because there’s always something dangerous lurking. I imagine that the air would always smell of some exotic perfume with a slight metallic edge if blood has been spilled! And it would be a pretty quiet place, just strange bird cries and animal calls, and occasional electronic blips.
Sounds like the near future. I like how you use a flattened perspective, did that approach develop intentionally?
Yes! I thought my paintings looked more interesting when the perspective wasn’t perfect, and it has a visually unsettling effect that enhances the surreal quality of my figures. The world I’m depicting is a bit off, so it makes sense to me that the perspective is off as well.
Collaboration with Luke Pelletier
Is there a storytelling aspect going on? Do the figures recur or have names?
There’s always a natural storytelling aspect to my paintings since I grew up as an avid reader and majored in illustration in school. I never specifically name my girls, but some of the women are recurring, and I tell their stories over several pieces. I’ve always enjoyed making up different worlds, and now I just paint one regularly.
What’s an example of a story you painted?
One of the characters I've revisited is this woman with long auburn hair who I first painted in my piece Norma. The piece itself is inspired by the opera Norma, which tells the story of a Druid priestess who has secretly been having a forbidden affair with a Roman proconsul, and has broken her vows and bore him two children. She finds out he's been having a separate affair with another priestess, and I can't get into the entire story here, but it's amazing and she really struggles with her own opposing natures, her duty to herself, her children and her vows, and ultimately throws herself on a burning pyre. The first piece I painted, I really wanted to convey that internal struggle and the idea of contemplating self sacrifice and really struggling with what is the right thing. Since then, I've painted her a couple more times, but different aspects of her and at different times in her life. She is in my piece The Gathering, but this time she is seductive and predatory, and it's more about her group dynamic with the other women. She's a little colder and definitely more dangerous. She's also in Merciless and has completely hardened, as the title implies.
How do you fit so many feels into one image?
I enjoy including different aspects in a painting that contradict each other. For example, whenever I depict violence, I try to show more than one reaction. If something terrible is happening but someone looks bored or happy, it is immediately a more interesting situation. Emotions are complex—sometimes you’re pissed but you’re also crying, and then in an hour, you’re laughing at a fart joke. My paintings attempt to display this emotional complexity.
Are you as bold and stabby as the people you paint?
Sadly, I am not! I tend to live vicariously through them. I’m no shrinking violet but I am a pretty passive person, and I really try to fly under the radar. I’m definitely less stabby since I dread confrontation.
What do you like about Greek mythology and who’s your favorite Greek deity?
I love the drama of Greek mythology! It’s completely ridiculous and fantastical but also incredibly human and relatable, nevermind all the sick imagery and art that resulted from it. It’s hard to pick a favorite deity since they’re all pretty flawed and shitty and incestuous, but the Metamorphoses is definitely my favorite retelling of the myths.
What’s your freak number?
I don’t want to get too explicit here, but I definitely enjoy some of the sexual exploits and gear that I feature in paintings. I’ve never gone full-on dildo mask, but there’s always tomorrow!
Tell me about your collabs with Luke Pelletier and how you influence each other.
Being able to collaborate and work with someone so closely has been a really great learning experience because it challenges you to think about approaching your work with a new perspective. When I’m working alone, I have a certain way that I think about things. But when I work with someone else, there are a lot more variables and you have to see things differently. And once you’ve learned that new view, you’ll begin to consider your own work with that in mind. He’s helped me challenge myself to continue working larger, and I definitely have looked at how he paints murals so that I can adjust my own techniques to work better at a larger scale. He’s also really good about letting himself enjoy the process and I tend to forget that on my own. It’s great having someone who completely understands how committed you are to your work and pushes you to do even more. And hopefully I can do the same for him.
Who are artists you liked ten years ago, five years ago, and how about now?
Ten years ago, when I was fifteen: Salvador Dalí, Man Ray and Rene Magritte were all huge inspirations. I had also just discovered modern installation art, so I was really into Olafur Eliasson. And then, of course, I saw Juxtapoz, so Skinner, Alex Pardee, and Miss Van got me interested in work outside of the museums I had grown up visiting.
Five years ago, I had learned about the Mission School artists by then, so Margaret Kilgallen and Barry McGee were my favorites. I was also really into James Benjamin Franklin’s paintings, and I started looking at Alex Katz again because of his amazing color choices and graphic quality. Also Grandma Moses. Now I’m really into Japanese art, specifically Shunga, so Hokusai and Issho are two greats. For contemporary artists, I love Jonas Wood and Paul Wackers’ work too.
Who is your dream celebrity collector?
I’m gonna assume you mean mainstream celebrity, art world not included, so I’ve gotta say that I would be stoked if Amber Rose bought a painting. She seems really cool and fun.
Since you are a person who grew up on the internet, it must have an influence on what you make.
Yeah, it definitely has! It’s just so easy to look up stuff now that it’s a giant visual library that provides unending inspiration.
Do you go through phases with your subject matter or aesthetics? What are some recent phases?
I make an active effort to vary what I paint, so if I’ve been doing a lot of scenes, I’ll try to do a still life then that focuses less on story and is more about technique and composition play. Or if I’ve just finished a still life, then I’ll do a portrait and work on figures. And I go through color phases. Right now, I’m leaning towards a very cool temperature overall. And I get really into painting specific images. For a while, it was fetuses in jars, but now I’ve been really into snakes and spotted animals.
What do you predict someone will say when they come across one of your paintings 100 years from now?
“This was art??” Ha, I really hope not, but honestly, I would just be flattered if my stuff was still being seen 100 years from now.
What’s the most exciting thing coming up for you in 2017?
I’m going to have a solo with Corey Helford Gallery in September that will be a ton of work and I really want to push myself for it.
Your Dueling Banjos animation is great. How did that project come up?
It was a school assignment for an animation class I took at Pratt. I had just seen Deliverance, so I was feeling very inspired. I’m still proud of that one just because it cracks me up.
What three things are you obsessed with tonight?
My dog, Gaston; salt and vinegar chips; Lifetime original movies.
Let’s talk about why Holbein acryla-gouache paint is the best shit ever and hope they read this and send us a bunch of free tubes.
It has changed my game! Amazing variety of colors, great consistency, and because it’s a little more fluid than acrylic, you can do detailed line work with more ease. It can be watered down for shading and transparency tricks too, and it mixes with acrylics, so I can use both simultaneously. Please send tubes! We love you! [Editor’s note: This is not product placement, we swear.]
In other news, sometimes you go by Kristen M. Liu and sometimes Kristen Liu Wong.
I used to want to take the Wong off since it’s my father’s last name, but then I realized there are like a bazillion Kristen Lius on the internet and name-change paperwork is a bitch, so I kept it. But this was after I had already paid for my domains and business cards. Oops.
If you had a band, what would it be called?
This is actually a joke my best friend and I have had for a while, but we’d be called The Fopple-Wops.
You mentioned that your first drawing was of some fish having a fish food barbecue. How old were you, and was it in crayon or marker? Did you have a pet fish?
I was probably like three or four and they were drawn in crayon and marker because I like options. Soon after this drawing was made, I got a pet fish named Romeo, and then he died and I think my sister’s fish ate his body a little too. I was afraid to go near the bowl and I’ve never had a fish since him. RIP Romeo.
Originally published in the March 2017 issue of Juxtapoz Magazine, on newsstands worldwide and in our web store.