Born and raised in San Francisco by her grandmother and art teacher mother, Kristen Liu-Wong spent her childhood inside museums or at school with her mum who was finishing a degree in textiles. She looked up to artists in high school who had either begun as illustrators or street artists, influencing her choice to study illustration at Pratt Institute, New York. “It seemed to be a little fresher than the fine art world of Chelsea which is why I didn’t go into painting,” she says.
Now based in L.A., her bold artwork explores themes of sexuality, power and violence through her personal portrayal of Japanese folk art. In an attempt to reveal all aspects of human nature she paints bright, bizarre narratives – their playful neon colors making a mockery of the darker, grotesque subject matter.
Her unique, surrealist style combines cartoon-inspired science fiction with the eroticism of Japanese shunga prints. Although she is Chinese, “the graphic nature of Japanese shunga is just so appealing that I especially draw upon that influence”. The environments she creates are of an exaggerated aesthetic, but she feels like the actions, circumstances and characters all speak to her personal reality. The scenes are unrealistic yet focus on relatable, everyday themes such as sexuality and vulnerability. This is reminiscent of Japanese shunga, which traditionally portrays the aesthetics of everyday life despite its overzealous eroticism.
Unlike her relatively mild-mannered self, Kristen’s fantastical, fictional space-witches embody sex as well as violence. “I was tired of seeing women portrayed as flat, weak characters with nothing to offer. Women are often portrayed sexually but by men for men – I wanted to show a woman’s perspective of our sexuality”. Their often threatening manner, blemished skin and black eyes offer something visually upsetting to offset their sexuality.
She knows pretty early on in the creative process how each piece will look by quickly sketching a thumbnail of the main figures and general composition. This then translates into a final drawing, which is transferred onto a panel for the painting; the specific colors and patterns are chosen as she goes along. “The artist Jan Yager once said something that really resounded with me: ‘I decided I had to do work that was authentic – of its place and of its time’, so I always try to approach my work with full commitment to try my best and not cut corners.”
She says, “I always have a new favorite piece because I believe that you’re only as good as your latest piece. I try to make each painting my new best.” An important mantra to keep motivated, she’s currently involved in a variety of exciting projects including a mural for Nous Tous gallery in Chinatown, L.A. before their opening of Everything You Own is Mine on August 6th. Her biggest upcoming show will be a two-person show in November at Ruckus Gallery Philadelphia – “that is the one that’s really going to be fun, but will also kick my ass.”