Not All is What it Seems in Kristen Liu-Wong’s Art
BY: SARAH HURLEY | ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF KRISTEN LIU-WONG
At first glance, the bright colors that radiate from Kristen Liu-Wong’s paintings might evoke a sense of bright cheerfulness, but upon closer observation, her technicolor dreamscapes take on a much darker tone. Crude expressions of violence and sexuality are painted in settings that feel like an almost idealistic oasis of lush foliage, crisp blue water, clean lines, and art deco interiors–all washed in vibrant neons and dreamy pastels. There is a stark juxtaposition between what seems beautifully whimsical and what is grossly raw.
Kristen’s latest body of work expands on the theme of duality that is common within her art, as it relates to morality and human nature. For her first solo exhibition, Conflict/Resolution at the Corey Helford Gallery, Kristen displays 14 pieces that depict good and evil, with an emphasis on pleasure and pain. We chatted with the artist about her career’s beginnings, the surreal world she creates for her characters, and the exploration of conflict within her latest works.
Check out Conflict/Resolution at the Corey Helford Gallery through October 21st.
Did you always know you wanted to be an artist? What was your journey to becoming a professional artist full time?
I didn’t always plan on being an artist. For a while I thought I would be an ophthalmologist because my aunt was a pediatrician, so I thought doctors were really cool and smart–which they are. But when I was in high school–I’ve always been really good at school–I realized when I was in my art class I had way more fun. I’ve always been really into art too so my junior or senior year I was like, “You know maybe I’ll just apply to art school because realistically, med school sound pretty tough and I don’t think I have the discipline for it.” I was like, “Art’s fun, it’s what I love to do.” I’m glad I chose this path because I definitely don’t have the discipline to be a doctor, like I should not be trusted with someone’s life.
I read read that you majored in illustration. What platforms or publications have you created art for?
I started in illustration because in high school I was really into Juxtapoz, and a lot of those artists that I was really into either started as illustrators or were working as illustrators. I love fine art, but illustration was what I wanted to be involved in. The funny thing is though, when I graduated I thought I would be an editorial illustrator because that’s what I had studied to do, but I sent out a bunch of my work and only one AD [Art Director] ever replied to me. But I ended up getting a gallery show because my old professor was curating one, and so from that show I started getting more gallery work than actual illustration work. I actually hadn’t started illustrating until I got more known for my paintings. But now I’ve worked for Lenny Letter–they’re awesome, I’ve done some things for Adidas, I have a hard time keeping track of the jobs they roll over so quickly.
You obviously have a very distinct style, is that something that you feel draws brands to you? Are they receptive to your style? When they come to you are they expecting you to run wild with your concept?
Yeah, now that they’re coming to me, I think they already know what I do. So they’re usually pretty ok with me doing pretty much whatever I want. Whereas when I used to go to art directors–I went into The New York Times with my portfolio and they told me, “This is a little risqué for us, but your art would look great in galleries, you should try galleries,” and I guess they were right. And now I get to do illustrations too.
You’ve said your work is a warped version of your daily life. How do you decide how your life is going to translate in your art’s alternate reality?
If something is weighing especially heavy on my mind, I think it will just come out in what I’m working on at that time. Like if I’m feeling sad that day about something in particular, that’s probably going to affect what I decide to make decide to make the piece about. For one of my pieces in the upcoming show, I was alone for a week in Kansas City house and dog-sitting, so I had a lot of time by myself. And when you hang out by yourself a lot, you start to think about death a lot, and I was listening to S-Town and the guy in it is really into sundials and clocks which makes you think about death too. So that helped to inspire the piece that I made titled A Sundial Motto and it’s like a death wrestling match. So just things like that come out from me just living my life. Just being ultra paranoid because I was alone in a giant house and being afraid of being murdered, you know?
Going back to this sort of alternate reality you create with your work, can you describe what that realm is? It’s kind of surreal and futuristic, and a little bit technical but also very fantastical.
Yeah, I kind of like to think of it as a place that’s outside of time and outside of logic. Magic’s possible there, but also obviously science and technology are heavily present there too. I haven’t developed it specifically, but it definitely has it’s own rules in my head. I feel like even in the scenes I painted for the show, I don’t know specifically what they’re warring about and I don’t think it’s really necessary to know the specifics, the focus is more on the acts themselves and getting the snapshots of these acts. But yeah, that parallel universe, it’s like a weird magical land, but not really magical–there’s not that much magic–because everyone still dies.
Yeah there’s this juxtaposition between these brilliantly vibrant colors–like you said this “magic”–but then like you said, people still die. There’s these dark, crude themes. Can you speak a little about the intention behind that?
My pieces aren’t completely serious or sad. I like to have a duality, the pieces are bright but the subject matter can be dark. I think it’s more interesting that way and it’s more aesthetically pleasing of course. I like bright colors so I’m just naturally drawn to that. But I think it does create an interesting effect where everything looks so nice, but then if you actually look at it, it isn’t. And that’s one of the most interesting things about life, looking closer at something and seeing what’s actually there. Things can be more than their colors, things can be more than what seems to be happening. I love black and white art, I love art with more earthy tones, but for my own personal art I’m drawn to brights, fluorescents, and pastels but I’m interested in darker subject matter. I think it creates an interesting visual contrast.
So this show in Los Angeles is your first solo show?
Yeah, I’ve had a solo project at Newton Images small room and then I had a pop-up show at an old gallery in Brooklyn called Bunny Cutlet that doesn’t exist anymore. But this is my first official big solo show.
How does that feel to have this exhibition that’s all your own?
I was pretty nervous. It’s pretty intimidating because I’ve also never created 14 pieces for one body of work. I knew I wanted to push myself as much as I could with the work just because I feel like this is my one chance to show what I can do and prove myself to myself a little bit.
So why now? Just where you’re at professionally, you’re ready to be front and center?
I mean, I guess so. Galleries just offer you the shows they offer you. So I guess I’m at the point in my career where someone feels confident enough in my work to offer me a solo with them which is amazing!
Yeah, that must be a great feeling.
Yeah it’s cool, but I like group shows too. I like sharing the burden.
So you said you created 14 pieces for this show. What’s the theme for this exhibition?
The show’s called Conflict/Resolution and all the pieces are centered on this idea of conflict, aggression, violence, and the impulses we all have that go along with those feelings. And also what can happen when we act on those impulses and the struggle within when giving into those impulses. There’s a lot of reflection and studies on remorse and guilt too. And the fear before something happens, and then taking pleasure in hurting others–I have pieces about that. It’s all about the conflict within ourselves to be good or bad and the conflicts we have with others.
Did you consider the location at all while creating for this show? Whether it be the space itself or the city of Los Angeles?
I mean, Corey Helford offered me this show and they’re like an amazing gallery and show crazy cool artists so I jumped at the chance. My opening is happening the same night as D*Face and Ray Caesar, it’s crazy. I was looking at Ray Caesar when I was in high school so it just blows my mind that I even get to be in the same place that holds his art, let alone have my own show there. I can’t believe my luck.
What’s up next for you?
I have two shows scheduled after this one. I’ll have one either really late December or early January in Portland at Screaming Sky which will be a two person show with Sabrina Elliott. And then in summer of 2018–I’m super excited for this show–I’m going to be doing a full on collab show with Luke Pelletier, my boyfriend, and we’re just gonna go all out and make a bunch of new paintings together and totally transform the space at Superchief and then they’re going to take it to their location in New York so it’ll be like a traveling show.
That’s so rad!
Yeah, it’s gonna be cool and we might be working with RVCA on something like a collab line, but we’re still working on that so we’ll see.