Grab your favourite bag of Cheetos, a couple of tools to cause you pain and pleasure at the same time and some kitsch sculpture to watch the scene. Now you’re ready to delve into Kristen Liu-Wong’s universe, a multicolour, fantastic world full of snakes, sex, otherworldly plants, lava lamps, cocktails spilled all over, and elegant china vases.
You were born and raised in San Fransisco but left home at the age of 17 to move to Brooklyn, where you decided to start studying Illustration at Pratt Institute. What is the one thing that made you end up choosing this specific course? And why did you feel like moving to the East coast to pursue an artistic career?
I decided to a do major in Illustration as opposed to Fine Arts/Painting because a lot of the living artists whose work I admired had started out as illustrators or worked as illustrators in addition to showing in galleries (artists like Tara McPherson, Alex Pardee, James Jean, etc.) and there seemed to be a lot of new and exciting work coming from illustrators. I was a teenager applying to art school, so I wasn’t even certain I had picked the right thing, but I always figured I could change majors later. I decided to move away for college for two reasons: Pratt was my top choice for schools and I wanted to see what it was like to live on my own somewhere completely new.
Moving from one place to another often influences your perspective on certain things in life. In what ways did going from California to New York and then eventually back to Los Angeles influence your view on art, design and your personal work?
I feel like every place you live inevitably ends up influencing your work, and getting the opportunity to experience both coasts was really enriching. I was born and raised in San Francisco, a city that is quite small but is also very culturally diverse and vibrant. When you’re in New York or Los Angeles, there’s always somewhere to go or something new to see so you’re constantly stimulated and inspired.
“Kristen’s illustrations look like tapestries for the modern age: full of contemporary references and intricate details that fill the space”, said Rebecca Fulleylove about your artworks. In them, the characters you portray express and embrace the struggles of power and sexuality, all painted with a tropical underworld backdrop. How would you describe your work in three words or a short sentence?
(Laughs) I don’t think I could describe my work more eloquently than that.
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All your pieces are easily recognisable in terms of authenticity. How did you develop such a distinctive style? How was the process of finding your own voice through illustration?
It took a lot of time and experimentation to arrive at something that felt natural and intuitive. I went to art school, so you’re expected to try a bunch of different mediums; seeing and learning about different artists was also really helpful. I took random classes like pop-up paper engineering, silkscreen and letterpress, video animation or web design. I was terrible at some of these things but it’s good to try something just so you can know your strengths and weaknesses. I copied the work of artists I liked a lot. I tried working in their styles and learning from the way they thought and worked. Ultimately, you try enough things that you start doing something that feels right, and every time you explore it a little more, you make it yours a little more. I’d like to hope that my work is still evolving and will continue to do so.
Your work contains a lot of different contemporary elements that anyone living nowadays can easily recognise and feel identified with. Where do you tend to find inspiration? Are there any people or artists that influence your work?
I find inspiration from my real life but also from books, film, art, architecture, cartoons, walking around my neighbourhood, etc. If I find something interesting or visually striking, I try to incorporate it in some way into my work because I believe that if you have an open and curious mind, you can never run out of inspiration. Artists I look at are, among others, Grandma Moses, Tamara De Lempicka, Margaret Kilgallen, Barry McGee, Hokusai, Clare Rojas, Yayoi Kusama, Olafur Eliasson, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, James Jean, Jonas Wood, Kerry James Marshall and Henry Darger.
At the end of the day, what is the one thing that triggers your creativity?
Seeing good art!
How do you start your creative process? What are the most important steps you take from the conceptual starting point to the final piece? When do you feel like it’s finished? Are you easily satisfied with the outcome?
I always take time to research a little and sketch when I’m starting a piece. You don’t want to force an image or settle for the first idea that comes along, so I give myself at least a day to really think about and develop what I want to make next. Then I gesso the panel and begin the final drawing on a piece of tracing paper. Once I’ve got the drawing and how I want it (which usually takes anywhere from a day to three days), I then transfer the drawing onto the primed panel. I paint background to foreground and I decide things like colour, pattern, and certain details as I go along. I wouldn’t say I’m easily satisfied but I do work on one piece at a time, so once I’ve finished a painting, I rarely go back to change things. If I don’t like how something is, I can usually tell soon after I’ve painted it, so it’s adjusted right then.
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There is quite a noteworthy juxtaposition between the often ‘heavy’ subject elements that tell the stories in your work and the mesmerising fluorescent colouring in which it is expressed. Why do you think the contrast is so big? Is that something you do on purpose?
Yes, it’s definitely something I keep in mind. I enjoy that incongruity it creates because I feel like it can have a more jarring effect on the viewer and it forces you to take a second, closer look at the image. Of course, I also enjoy the colours I use just on a purely aesthetic level.
Colours play a big role in your pieces. The main hues are pinks and blues, but we can also find pops of yellow or green. All of them are quite saturated and give the pieces a sort of otherworldly, even spacial look. Do you intentionally use these colours to give the paintings/illustrations a more artificial undertone and vibe?
Well, let’s just say I’m not overly concerned with realism in my palettes (laughs)s. The settings, figures, and situations are obviously fantastical, so my palette just reinforces that.
One of the most striking characteristics from your work ethic is that is you are telling a story, which is usually highly personal but at the same time open for individual interpretation. What is the primary message you want to convey? Are there certain reactions you hope to evoke?
There is no one message I’m trying to tell people because each piece differs and is informed by my life at the time that I made it. I really appreciate it when someone is able to connect with my work on a personal level, especially when what they see in the piece is specifically what I was trying to evoke.
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You mentioned that you draw on a lot of symbols for your work. “I’ve been trying to use flowers, more specifically lotuses – they represent purity of mind, body and speech and detachment, so it adds another layer to the painting when you place them near scenes of a gritty death”. Can you tell us more about the symbology in your work? What are the most used symbols and what are your favourite ones?
I use a lot of animals, flowers, and some traditional Catholic symbolism in my work, but I also regularly paint specific objects that have a personal symbolism for me. One of the more traditional symbols I feature heavily is the snake because they can represent danger, sin, or temptation. On the other hand, I also love painting fur rugs a lot because they look cool but also because they represent decadence and a sort of cruelty to me.
Themes such as sexuality and femininity are quite significantly playing a role within your art pieces. You also said that people take sex too seriously. Are you able to elaborate on this opinion? And how do you manage to express this personal point of view within your work?
I guess what I meant when I said that is that instead of being afraid or ashamed of sex, I think society would be much healthier if we recognised what a natural part of existence it is and were able to talk about it more openly. Specifically as a woman, it has often been considered taboo or unseemly to express any sort of interest in sex or sexual pleasure, so I think it’s important for me to explore this aspect of myself if I feel inclined to do so.
Are there any new projects in the planning, that we really should be looking forward to? How do you hope your future will look like regarding your artistic career?
I have a big show with my friend and incredible artist/human Jillian Evelyn, which opened on September 21st at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles. I hope I’m able to keep doing this as a career and I hope I only get bigger, better and more challenging opportunities in the future.
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