When you dip a toe into LA-based artist and longtime Live FAST art crush Kristen Liu Wong‘s vibrant and multi-faceted world of fierce and feral women, you find yourself tiptoeing between the sweet and the sinister, immersed in the tantalizing dichotomy of pleasure and pain and fantasy and reality. Her playful and uninhibited paintings and illustrations, saturated with florescent splashes of color and surreal details, shift like a diamond in the sun, evolving from candy-coated daydream to grotesque nightmare right before your eyes, laying bare our animalistic human instincts and the messy complexity of womanhood without apology or explanation.
Her beautifully bizarre work feels both empowering and unnerving, exploring the overlapping relationship between violence and sexuality. Awash in vivid hues and contemporary details, her work represents a decidedly modern womanhood, one that features confident women navigating the strange world around them in their most natural state, with sharp claws and slithering tongues that call to mind an otherworldly strength, erotic and aggressive and utterly free from the watchful eye of the male gaze. Her paintings and illustrations feels like an intoxicating visual feast, seductively pulling you close before sinking their teeth in. Brazenly baring our deepest impulses, exploring the duality of darkness and light, we come away from her work a little more aware of the wildness inside us all.
Suffice to say that Kristen’s playful yet provocative work strikes a deep and resounding chord, and we’re certainly not the only ones who think so. Catch her as a panelist at Society6′s woman artist summit Girls Art Now! this Saturday, serving up some realness about what it means to be a woman artist in this day and age and why she feels art is “one of the most beautiful ways to express humanity.” She will be joined by 20+ badass female creatives, activists, entrepreneurs, and performers for a day filled with thoughtful discussion, live music and comedy, and inspiring creative energy, all alongside an art exhibit featuring work from 50+ female artists. We chatted with her about her involvement with Girls Art Now!, letting her imagination run wild, and why she loves painting women who “don’t give a fuck if they’re appealing.”
Live FAST: Tell us little bit about who you are and what you do. How did you get your start? Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
Kristen Liu-Wong: I’m a painter and illustrator living and working in Los Angeles. I went to Pratt Institute where I graduated in 2013 with a BFA in Illustration. Since then I’ve been showing in galleries across the country and internationally and working with companies like Lenny Letter, Adidas, Nasty Gal and Unbound. I got my start by showing with galleries – I was in group shows here and there and then one of my professors was asked to curate a show and he put me in it. From that show the gallery offered me a solo pop up for a week and from that I was invited to be in another group show which led to even more opportunities. I’ve always loved art but for a while I thought I wanted to be an ophthalmologist.
LF: How did you get involved with Girls Art Now?
KLW: I’ve worked with Nada and Society6 before so when she asked me to be a part of Girls Art Now! and I learned that all proceeds would go towards helping Sexy Beast and Planned Parenthood LA, I had to help out (even though I dread public speaking). As someone who has benefitted from the services offered by Planned Parenthood, I think it’s bullshit that funding was cut and so any chance I can get to help, I’ll take!
LF: Your illustrations juxtapose powerful and evocative subject matters, such a sex and violence, against a candy-coated color palette. What inspires you to explore this dichotomy between sweet and sinister?
KLW: I think that’s one of the most interesting aspects of my work and of life in general. No one is completely one way and that’s what my work tries to explore. It’s really easy to categorize somebody or even ourselves, but only by looking at all of the parts (the good and the bad) can we begin to understand what makes us human. I want my work to convey this idea visually as well. I think it makes the pieces more aesthetically interesting.
LF: I love the unapologetic and empowering way that you present the spectrum of sexuality and the often messy or confusing complexities of womanhood. The women you portray prove that sexuality does not necessarily have to be pretty or sensual. Is this intentional? Do you to consider your work a response to the constraints of society on women?
KLW: In some ways, yes. I intentionally try to paint women in a way that conveys the complexities of what it is to be a woman and what it is to be human. For so long we’ve been props, shoved into the category of whore or Madonna. If we’re beautiful, men will want us even if they don’t necessarily respect us. If we aren’t, we’re told to shut up and get out of view. The women I paint don’t give a fuck if they’re appealing and that’s part of why they’re so alluring. The women I paint can be strong and sexual, they can be aggressive or vulnerable, they can be sad and ugly. There’s no one thing that a woman is and there’s no one way to paint a woman.
LF: Your work is filled with details, both playful and thought-provoking. Many feel almost too realistic, and yet others have a surreal, futuristic energy. Why do you find yourself switching between these realms of fantasy and reality?
KLW: I specifically add those more realistic details to ground images that could otherwise be interpreted as completely fantastical. My work is where I can really let my imagination run wild. I love making interiors or imagery that don’t exist but that I wish did. At the same time, I live in the real world, and by adding details from everyday life I am able to make these fantastical images and situations more accessible.
LF: Is your work about telling a story? Do you draw from elements of your personal life for your art?
KLW: There’s always a story in my pieces. I trained as an illustrator and I love to read so I tend to think in narratives. All of the little details mean something to me: the bouquet of cardamine flowers (symbolizing paternal error) sitting next to a masturbating woman speak to my own issues surrounding my biological father and the effect that relationship has had on my relationship with sex. As two women dominate a man, the stack of books in the front containing “Nana” and “Sister Carrie” echo that theme (and I happened to be reading “Nana” at the time I was painting the piece). I was inspired to create a piece borrowing from the Pieta’s pose by my grandmother’s death, which I often revisit in my work. All art is a reflection of its creator and the time it was made so it isn’t surprising that I can’t resist adding details that have personal significance to me.
LF: You’ve worked with quite a few brands championing women’s issues. Do you think art is an important tool for social change?
KLW: Yes. That has been one of art’s largest and most important roles throughout history. That’s part of why art is so relevant and needs to valued and taught to future generations! It’s one of the most beautiful ways for people to express their humanity and their aspirations for what we are and what we can be.
LF: I’m captivated by your portraits of what women do when they are alone in their own spaces. What is your preferred method of self-care?
KLW: I like to smoke weed and get some snacks going and either watch a bit of good TV (the definition of good varies: I love anything from true crime to PBS documentaries to some Real Housewives). On days when my eyes aren’t too tired, I’ll dive into a book. I’ve been on a Émile Zola kick right now and just spent the past week striking with miners in “Germinal.” If I’m stressed, playing a little Enya and lighting a scented candle is the fastest way for me to relieve some tension.
LF: What’s next for you?
KLW: In the grand scheme of things, I have no idea because life can dropkick you in the tits at any second. As far as work goes, I have an upcoming show for July at Superchief NY with Lolo YS, BoyKong, and Kashink. Then I have some group shows and a show in Madrid in February 2019 that I’m psyched about since I’ve never had the chance to show in Madrid! Then in September 2019, my gal Jillian Evelyn and I will be doing a two-person show at Corey Helford Gallery.
LF: How FAST do you live?
KLW: I live pretty slowly, actually. I get tired and grandma needs her rest!