Artist Profile: Kristen Liu-Wong
On September 23rd, 2017, the Corey Helford Gallery in downtown Los Angeles is busy premiering the latest work by California native, Kristen Liu-Wong, entitled “Conflict/Resolution.” Opening night is crowded to say the least -- outside cars are passing slowly in hopes to find street parking near the entrance of gallery to avoid a long walk, but of course it’s LA and all the most convenient spots are taken. Still, attendees are determined to see the beauty in the gallery and a long line of eager people outside the door gathers and waits to enter.
Inside it's almost impossible not to bump into people clutching their glasses of Pinot Noir. Fans of Liu-Wong's work are everywhere -- posing in front of her gorgeous paintings and no doubt wondering how they can get their hands on one. Liu-Wong's style is unique -- she paints acrylic on wood and uses textile designs and geometric patterns reminiscent of the 90s, as well as a Miami Vice type of color scheme with bold neon shades and pastels. Her subjects are typically women who are scantily clad or nude and involved in something rather violent or sexual. In every piece, the women use their demonstrated power for an unidentified reason, reinforcing the collection’s name, as well as encouraging viewers to search for a motive and an end result.
At the age of 17, Liu-Wong left her home of San Francisco to study illustration at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. Since graduating in 2013, her work has steadily risen in popularity and has been shown in numerous galleries across the country. Liu-Wong has found herself back in California, currently living in Los Angeles, where she is finally presenting her very first exhibition focusing on her work and the stories and experiences she tells within them. Her compositions might be of smaller size, but her work leaves a lasting impression. No matter where the eye might fall, it’s exposed to thrilling detail, authoritative patterns, and valiant color that are all Liu-Wong’s own.
Rogue sat down with Liu-Wong to discuss her new collection of work, what it took to get there, and what it feels like to present her first solo exhibition here in Los Angeles.
ROGUE: How did you 1st begin your journey as an artist? Has it been something you always knew you wanted to pursue or something that developed over time?
Kristen: My mom is an elementary art school teacher so she exposed us to art at a young age and we would help make all of the sample art projects for her class. I’ve always enjoyed drawing and I was that kid who would make the really elaborate dioramas for a book report or go all out decorating my folders for class. I never really seriously considered it as a career though until Junior year of high school when I realized it was what I was most passionate about and that it was really the only thing I could see myself doing in life. I wasn’t sure if it would work out since I know it’s difficult to make it as a full time artist but I wanted to give it a try.
R: Do you have a vivid memory of the first piece of art you created? Can you tell us about it?
K: Yes! My first drawing I ever made was when I was probably 3 or something and it was of a bunch of fish at a fish food bbq drawn in crayons and markers.
R: Is there someone in the art world who has influenced your style? Tell us a bit about them and why they’ve inspired you.
K: When I first started really finding my “style” I was influenced heavily by Grandma Moses, Barry McGee, and Margaret Kilgallen. Grandma Moses was a huge inspiration for a few reasons. I loved that she got into painting later in life- it was such a pure instinct for her to create and she was unconcerned with whether it was art or not, whether she would become famous or not, whether people liked her work or not. That’s one of reasons I love folk art and outsider art so much- it’s such an authentic record of their existence and impulses. Seeing the work of Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen was inspirational for many of the same reasons. They were making cool art and having fun and unconcerned with whether or not the fine art world accepted them. Needless to say I love the aesthetics of all of these artists too- their use of flat color, pattern and a heavy outline are all mirrored in my work.
R: Have you ever considered pursuing a path outside of the arts?
K: Yes, when I was younger I wanted to be an ophthalmologist!
R: Is there a piece that you are most proud of in this gallery? What’s the story behind it?
K: The piece I’m proudest of in the show is “Kill Them, Crush Me”. It’s the largest piece in the show and the largest piece I’ve made since graduation so I really wanted to push myself for it. It’s based on Tamara DeLempicka’s painting “Group of Four Nudes”- I wanted to make a portrait of powerful women and I love the way she paints the female body. Her figures have an almost statuesque quality that makes them seem as if they are carved from stone- I wanted my figures to convey the same power but have a bit more movement since the show is centered around the idea of conflict.
R: Can you tell us a bit about your process of creating one of your pieces? How do you know when a piece is complete?
K: I’m kind of anal so the process for my pieces is pretty measured. I start by doing a small quick thumbnail, very sketchy, just so I can figure out quickly how I might want the composition to look. I prepare a cradled birch panel with 3 or 4 coats of gesso and then I trace the outline of the panel onto a piece of tracing paper. I make the final drawing on tracing paper where I figure everything out (I don’t draw directly on the panel so I can keep it neat since I hate eraser marks). The drawing can take me anywhere from 1-2 days to complete and I have to draw everything the opposite direction I want it because everything gets flipped over for the transfer. Once the drawing has been transferred I begin painting background to foreground since the background usually has gradients or other messier elements. I decide things like pattern, texture and color as I go and fill parts in until it’s finished! I’m pretty decisive so it isn’t hard for me to tell when a piece is completed and in a way, my paintings are like an elaborate paint by numbers haha.
R: We love your use of flattened perspective - why did you first begin using this style and how have your methods changed since you began painting to what it is currently?
K: I like using a flattened perspective for a couple of reasons. My pieces obviously aren’t realistic and the awkward perspective adds to that sense of disconnect from reality. I’m inspired by folk art, which uses a flattened perspective and I like being able to create an entire world that doesn’t have to obey the laws of perspective, or physics, or logic even for that matter. As I’ve gotten older, I use a lot more heavy patterning and my figures have become less stick-ish and androgynous. Also, now I add shading to certain elements like skin.
R: Your paintings are undeniably a powerful experience, full of very raw emotions - is there anything you’d like viewers of your work to understand about your personal story and how it has influenced your paintings?
K: Haha I’m a pretty private person so while I do think it’s important to provide some context for my work, I have a hard time sharing some of the more personal aspects of my story and I prefer for people to use their own experiences to color how they interpret my work. Maybe one day I’ll be ready to share more so that people can fully understand my private motivations and impulses but I’m still working towards that.
R: Totally understand! So, creatives are often known as risk takers - are there any risks you’ve taken for your art? If so, what were they?
K: One of the biggest risks I’ve taken was when I moved out to LA with no plan other than to try and make my career as a full-time freelance artist a reality. I had a job as a print studio assistant for two years after graduating and I saved up every penny I could. When I moved to LA I had no job lined up and my only backup plan was to be a dog walker- I basically lived off my savings, making small affordable things for some extra cash, taking any opportunity I could, until I started getting more paying jobs. Art as a career is a huge risk and you have to be working constantly to keep the momentum going because it is so easy to have long periods between paying commission work so you have to motivate yourself to keep painting.
R: What have you learned about yourself through your art? What do you hope viewers learn from your work after experiencing it?
K: If anything, art has just helped me realize my own worth to an extent. Everyone has their insecurities but art and academics have been the one area where I felt confident and the fact that I can make a career out of something that is completely my own has been really amazing and reaffirming. It’s easy to never feel good enough, and I still question whether I deserve any of the success I have but it just makes you work harder. And I don’t know if there’s anything specific I’m trying to teach people- my art is primarily a personal reflection on my own nature and experiences but I do hope that people are able to see themselves in my paintings and find something that speaks to who they are and things they have experienced.
R: On a day to day basis, is there something that triggers your creativity? What is it?
K: Just seeing and experiencing the world around me is inspiration. If I pass a cool house, if I see a new plant, if someone shows me an amazing painting by another artist- all these visual stimuli can be used later.
R: What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced along the way, not only in building a career as an artist but also in releasing your work to the world? Any unique challenges you’ve faced as a woman building a career in the arts?
K: There are so many difficult things that you have to learn about as you go- the business aspect of art is particularly challenging for me because I’m not very savvy in that way. You have to be careful because people will try to rip you off and I’ve had multiple fishy emails trying to scam me under the guise of buying a piece. Things like contracts, unending emails, juggling multiple illustration jobs in addition to painting for galleries- it’s all something that has been a challenge and continues to be one. As far as being a woman in the art world- I do think it can be easier to be dismissed as a woman in the arts. When I was first trying to be an editorial illustrator (which didn’t work out until much later) an art director told me he loved my work but was at first going to dismiss it because he saw pink and thought I would just be making cutesy “girl” art. I like making work that challenges the idea of what girls like to paint. Yes, I use cute colors and paint flowers and pretty things (because I like them) but I also want to make work that can be brutal and disquieting and looks at who we are as full humans. It’s also harder as a woman to ask for things (in terms of business) and I’ve occasionally had people assume I was just some artist’s girlfriend hanging around before I’ve introduced myself.
R: It’s important not to get too comfortable as an artist—there has to be something at stake that keeps one from getting too complacent, to keep one growing. What for you is at stake?
K: Everything! I have a constant fear of failure that drives me and I will always be afraid of not being good enough so with every painting I make, I try to paint at least one thing I’ve never painted or try one new technical trick or texture. Art has been my safe place and I want to contribute to it as much as I can before I die- art is enduring and universal and will last as long as humanity’s creativity is allowed to flourish. I like to hope that when I die my work can inspire future generations as I’ve been inspired by so many before me and in that way my work can stay relevant too.
R: You’ve collaborated with some incredible artists, including Luke Pelletier – what do you enjoy about the collaboration process that might be different from creating a solo show?
K: Art can be so personal and self-involved that’s it’s nice to be able to get out of your own head and learn a new way of thinking and working. You discover new perspectives that can inform your own and you have to learn how to compromise and adjust your process to suit who you’re working with. It’s also nice to share the burden haha- a solo is extremely stressful because you have only yourself to rely on for the entire body of work.
R: Naked women in art can often be mistaken as objectification. Do you face any criticism about the perceived brutality in your work? Any uncomfortable questions about the nudity and, to some, the ‘taboo’ subject matter?
K: No I haven’t yet! I try really hard to make women who are sexually complex, as real life women are, and I think a lot of other women (and men) are able to see that in my pieces. People seem to be more interested in, as opposed to critical of, the sexuality and brutality. But yeah there are definitely people out there who think I make trash, you can’t please everyone.
R: Any stories hiding amongst the women you paint? Do they become ‘friends’ to you, in a way, with names and lives of their own?
K: I’ve occasionally created loose back stories in my head for them but I rarely name them haha. I have had a few recurring characters show up like one lady who I based off of the opera “Norma” but so many of my pieces are just snapshots of these women that I only know their immediate story.
R: Are you as fierce and audacious as the women you paint?
K: I’m a watered-down version of them haha. I definitely have my tangy side which is why I paint these ladies but I would never be bold enough to even call someone out for cutting me in line.
R: What does success mean to you?
K: I’m still trying to figure that out. When I was in college I thought I’d be successful if I was able to do art full-time and have the respect of artists whom I admire. Then Alex Pardee, Skinner, and Miss Van (all high school art heroes) followed me back on Instagram a year or two ago and now I’m freelancing full time so I have to change my definition so I can strive for more. I guess my next goal would be to eventually get a MOMA retrospective hahaha but that seems pretty impossible. Even if that happens once I’m dead, I will be so grateful!!
R: That doesn’t seem so impossible! So, what’s next for you? Any new challenges you’d like to tackle?
K: I’m going to be doing a huge collab show with Luke Pelletier next summer at Superchief. I don’t want to say too much since it’s still far off and we have a bunch of ideas going but we’ll be playing around with installations, sculptures, potentially a clothing line with RVCA that will also be released at the show, in addition to a bunch of new paintings that we’ll make together. It’s all just ideas now but I’m really excited since it’s been two years since our last collab show.
R: What advice might you have for people pursuing a professional career in the challenging and competitive world of art?
K: Always make work and always try to make it your best work. My first shows were huge group ones but you never know who will see your work, so put your best foot forward because you’re only as good as your last piece. If you don’t have any jobs, create your own projects- you should always be working on something even if that means you don’t get to go out on weekends or at night because you have a day job.
"Conflict/ Resolution" will be open to the public through October 21st in Gallery 3 at Corey Helford Gallery.
Written by Betsey Belle Camacho
Interview by Katie McGehee