Often violent and sexually explicit, the work of Kristen Liu-Wong blends everyday occurrences from her own life with abstracted elements of fantasy worlds and crude humor. Channeling life’s everyday brutality, the San Francisco-born and Los Angeles-based artist is not afraid to make the viewer feel uneasy.
Kristen’s work draws from a range of sources, from cartoons, American folk and architecture to Japanese and Egyptian art. Coated in fluorescent and candy colors, this 2D wonderland is populated by fierce, strong, independent and complex women placed in highly detailed, lush interiors full of contemporary references and symbolism. Often nude or scarcely dressed, her characters seductively and violently interact with each other, embracing struggles of power and desire. Personal and slightly sinister, her narratives allow for a myriad of individual interpretations.
Kristen took part in the Hello Kitty® 45th Anniversary Group Show currently on display at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles through August 3. The exhibition brought together 100 artists from all over the globe who re-interpreted the iconic image of Hello Kitty and her friends in their own style.
On the occasion of the show, Kristen talks about her unique aesthetic, her fierce female characters, nudity, sexuality, symbolism, and much more.
You have created a surreal and futuristic universe that appears as a candy-coated fever dream. What informed this aesthetic?
It came together rather gradually and is an amalgamation of all my artistic and life influences. As a ’90s kid, I was of course raised on Nickelodeon cartoons, and you can see the bright colors, bold outlines and patterns that reflect that. My mother also consistently brought us to museums on free days and the library, so I was raised looking at Asian art, textiles, Native American pottery, American folk art, Renaissance and Surreal masters, Chihuly glass, etc. She’s an elementary art school teacher who majored in textiles and raised us as a single mother so she would take us to her college classes while she finished her degree at SF State. My sister would help write the notes for her art history class while I would draw the slides, and it’s funny because my sister ended up majoring in art history, and I of course ended up drawing a whole bunch. So, any influences that I have now are a result of the culturally rich upbringing I had!
This world is populated by fierce and audacious women involved in something rather violent or sexual. What is the overarching narrative behind these struggles of power and sexuality that permeate your work?
There’s no single overarching narrative, at least not a conscious one. Every piece is inspired by something that I am thinking about or going through at the time of the piece’s conception, and power and sexuality happen to be something that I grapple with on a personal level regularly. I don’t want to get into it too much since it is so personal, but I also purposefully keep my work visually ambiguous because I think that one of art’s most powerful aspects is how you can connect with the human experience of its creator regardless of time and society. Even though my pieces are about me, I want them to be able to speak to viewers and what they are going through.
Your women are mostly nude or barely dressed. How do you think female nudity plays into the idea of empowerment?
There’s something that is simultaneously vulnerable and empowering about the nude figure, and depending on the pose or context, you can say a lot with the nudity of a person. A woman refusing to hide her body and not caring how others perceive it is something that I love to portray. My women don’t give a shit if others find them appealing, and it is that carefree mindset that is exactly why I think people find them attractive even if they can be terrifying at times. I love the way the human body looks. I love drawing the subtle curve of a woman’s belly and the dark little indent where the thigh meets the crotch, so on a more basic aesthetic level, I include nudity because the human form is so incredible.
Your subjects are often paired with intense, feral-looking animals. How would you describe the dynamics between them?
Animals are part of our world so I only think it’s natural that they should be included in mine. I love and respect animals so much, and, in some ways, I’m a person who is more comfortable with animals than with other people. Depending on the painting, animals can represent this idea of companionship and comfort, or they can be a protective presence. They can also embody the more feral, animalistic aspects of our nature in other pieces, and if the animal has some symbolic meaning—such as with wolves, snakes, moths, etc.—I keep that in mind.
In a world where female sexuality is often taboo, it is refreshing to see your characters embracing and owning it. How does your art reflect your relationship with your own sexuality?
It’s difficult to say without getting too personal, but I’ve struggled with sex and my own sexuality quite a bit, so in some ways, I paint sex so much because I’m still trying to understand it myself. In this respect, my pieces are quite yearning. I wish I could “own it” the way my women do. As I’ve grown sexually and gotten more comfortable, my sexual works have become more personal and introspective, but just like with sex and my sexuality, I only hope that my erotic works will continue to grow as I do.
How would you describe the dichotomous relationship between the somewhat disturbing subject matter that frequents your work and the candy coloring with which it is expressed?
This dichotomy is part of why I use the colors I do! I’ve always liked work that really makes you take another look. People see cute pinks and purples and pastel blues, and they’ll assume it’s about one thing or another, and then they look at what is actually happening, and they have to take a second to digest that disparity. It’s jarring and can be unsettling but also brings a bit of brightness and levity to the piece. Much of my work looks at the duality and complexity of human nature, and I’d like to think that it is echoed in this dichotomous relationship.
Your works are intricately detailed and rich in symbolism. How do you construct your environments, and what are the symbols which you draw on the most?
I look at a lot of reference and inspiration for my work. I’m a huge architecture and industrial/interior design fan, so whenever I see something cool, I save it and use it when I make my environments. That’s the best thing about painting, even if I don’t have much money, I can paint all of the marble interiors, lush greenery and columns I want! Every time I start a new piece, I research a bunch before I even start sketching, and sometimes I’ll be drawn to something specific that will be the launching pad for the entire painting, and I add on from there. Currently, I’m making a show based on floriography, so I’ve been using a lot of flowers symbolically, but I also use a lot of Catholic symbolism since I was raised in the church, although I am no longer practicing and consider myself an open atheist. I also use animals as symbolism a lot, which I mentioned before, and things like swimming pools and gutted fish have a personal symbolic meaning to me.
You participated in the Corey Helford Gallery’s Hello Kitty show. Can you tell us something about the work on view?
This was seriously such a fun piece to make since I was raised on Sanrio and I feel like I unleashed all my pent-up cuteness on it! I featured Kiki and Lala of Little Twin Stars as my main characters, and they’re having a slumber party in the clouds as Lala sprinkles some magic dust on Hello Kitty so she can dance on the tip of a moon. Also, there’s a tea party going on with some Funfetti cake and glitter glue stardust, so basically it’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever made. (Laughs.) It was really strange making a piece that was pure, unadulterated cuteness, but I had a blast. Sanrio was such a magical part of my childhood, and I hope that I was able to bring some of that magic out in my piece.
What’s next for you?
I have a show with my good friend and incredible artist Jillian Evelyn at Corey Helford Gallery opening September 21! We’ve got some really cool stuff planned for it, and I’m especially excited because we plan on doing a collaborative piece. It’s always fun to paint with friends.