By AMELIA ANTHONY, February 2020
Los Angeles-based painter and illustrator Kristen Liu-Wong’s works exist in their own bacchanalian universe. Her signature pointy-breasted figures murder, maim, smile, and charm in intricate pastel scenes. Greek mythology, folk artistry, and contemporary iconography all materialize frequently as well. I spoke with Liu-Wong about her inspirations and stimuli, the role of social media in art, and where she may think her art and the art world is headed.
Amelia Anthony: Your recent collection of work, Metamorphoses, is centered around the poem by Ovid. Myths blur the line between story and history, fantasy and reality. How do mythologies inform your work?
Kristen Liu-Wong: I’ve always been fascinated by Greek and Roman mythology. The fantastical elements spark my imagination and the psychological aspects—the deeply flawed humans and divine beings always fucking, fighting, plotting, fucking up, or falling in love—they’re so relatable and have a timelessness that I try to capture.
AA: You have cited American folk art as a major inspiration. How do the elements of the genre appear in your work?
KLW: I often use a more flattened perspective, and the way I draw trees and paint grass, fur, and some other elements are directly influenced by the way I’ve seen it done by some artists. (Specifically, the way I paint fire is copying John Hilling’s The Burning of the Old South Church in Bath, Maine). I’ve used patterns from quilts and old bits of fabric that I’ve found or see. The way I draw faces, with almond eyes and simplified noses and mouths, emulates the naïveté that can be found in folk artists’ portraiture. I admire folk art because it is such a pure expression of human creativity—folk art helps remind me that you don’t need to be Picasso to make amazing work.
AA: Where are your other sources of inspiration recently? As a viewer, what types of art and which artists are you drawn to? Where should a person seeking new and interesting art go?
KLW: Recently I’ve been looking at a lot of shunga and the photography of Nobuyoshi Araki. I don’t limit myself to a type of art or artist to be inspired by—I look at architecture, industrial design, abstract art, figurative works, installation art, sculpture, photography, textile arts, and more. I think it’s important to have an open and curious mind. If you do, it’s very easy to find inspiration anywhere. In addition to going to gallery and museum shows regularly, people can find great artists by going to art book stores, or the library if you’re on a budget, or by watching PBS programs or documentaries about artists with whom you’re less familiar. I’ve actually discovered a ton of great art and artists just by watching the Antiques Roadshow!
AA: You have nearly 200k followers on Instagram. What role does social media play in your career? As a whole, is Instagram good for art and artists? How do you deal with censorship of erotic and sexual content on the app?
KLW: It’s a double-edged sword for me. It’s been very important in getting my work out there and so many opportunities have come directly from people seeing my work on it.
At the same time, I hate labels like “Instagram artist.” I was making work before I had Instagram and I’d like to think my work can outlast an app that may be replaced in a year or two. I remind myself to keep it in perspective—the art is the most important thing. There are incredible, talented, living-legend artists, that have shown at the Whitney or whatever, but may have fewer followers than me, so social media isn’t always a reflection of reality.
I can’t say what the long term effects of social media and the Internet will be on art, but I will say, there’s nothing like seeing a good painting in real life. Censorship is something I have to put up with because I rely on Instagram for jobs and opportunities, but it definitely pisses me off that I can’t show my work as it was made to be seen.
AA: Aside from paintings, your work also appears in a variety of other forms: greeting cards, murals, even swimsuits. How do scale and form affect the content of your work? How do you play around with detail and intricacy?
KLW: The content of my illustration work is really affected by the job requirements, as opposed to my personal work, where I get to make all the decisions. Commercial jobs often require more conservative imagery, or they’ll request a specific theme or subject matter so I do what makes the client happy. Illustration jobs often have faster deadlines as opposed to paintings for galleries, so I typically do editorial work digitally—I mean I draw on paper and scan in, then color digitally—to save time and make revisions easier.
Some murals, specifically ones for galleries, can be more open-ended so then I pretty much do whatever strikes my fancy. I tend to simplify certain elements for murals as opposed to one of my paintings. They have a much more graphic quality due to the time constraints that come with most murals.
AA: What role does femininity, and its pastels, flowers, and women, play in your work? Do you see your own art as feminist? (Is art made by feminist women inherently feminist?)
KLW: Femininity is an inherent part of my work as a woman making art, but if I’m being completely candid, my pieces tend to deal more with human nature in general. I do make a point of showing the dimensionality of women because historically we’ve often been pigeon-holed into certain categories. I am a feminist but I don’t want to be known as a great female artist, I want to be a great artist period. I think that is part of my being a feminist—I’m tired of unnecessary labels and society telling you that because you make art and are a woman your work must be this or that.
AA: In what directions do you see you and your work going in the next few years? Conversely, how far have you come in the past few years?
KLW: I have no idea where I’m going. I just hope to grow and improve and I think that happens organically. Of course, there are technical and conceptual ways to challenge yourself, but that comes with each piece or body of work as you create it. I’ve definitely come quite far in the past few years—four years ago I didn’t even know if freelancing would work out for me and now I’m scheduling shows with galleries a year or two in advance!
If we’re talking about developments aesthetically, I’ve become a lot more ornate and ambitious with details and compositions. I do hope to work bigger since I recently moved to a new place and now, for the first time since graduation, I don’t have to work in my bedroom anymore. WM
Amelia Anthony is a student and writer. She lives in Providence, RI.view all articles from this author