Artist Feature: Kristen Liu-Wong's Surreal, Dreamy, & Erotic Paintings
by Yuliya Veligurskaya·
Kristen Liu-Wong's work is surreal, illustrative, dreamy, sometimes erotic, and always striking. Drawing from an eclectic collection of narrative and aesthetic influences, Kristen paints detailed tableaus of self-reliant women in florescent and pastel hues.
We talked to Kristin about folk art, making your best work while on social media, and 90s Nickelodeon for our latest Artist Feature Interview. 🌈💖💿
1. What's your name and where are you from?
My name is Kristen Liu-Wong and I’m from San Francisco, CA but I live in Los Angeles now!
2. How did you develop your style?
Time and trying out a lot of different things first! When I first applied to art school, I was doing pen and ink drawings of engines and I was wary of painting or even using color. In school I was forced out of my comfort zone and challenged to try new things and see new work. Eventually, after a lot of experimenting, you find something that just feels right and you keep exploring it…
3. What are you greatest artistic influences? Would you tells us a little more about them?
American folk art, Japanese wood block prints, Chinese pottery, Nickelodeon cartoons, the Surrealist movement, the Mission School, literature, and architecture… I know I listed a lot, but I draw on so many sources for inspiration that it was hard to narrow it down to even these generalizations.
I love folk art because it comes from such a genuine human impulse to create and story tell and artists like Grandma Moses, Henry Darger, and the quilters of Gee’s Bend were able to create true masterpieces with no formal training and with no notions of personal art world fame or glory. In many ways that’s what was so inspirational to me about the Mission School movement - after seeing Beautiful Losers it helped me realize that you don’t need to paint like Rembrandt or Jenny Saville to make great work; as long as work is authentic to you it can be valuable.
Since I was raised in a Chinese American household (and we still had a lot of my grandfather’s antiques that he had managed to save before WWII), I grew up looking at Asian art. The incredible graphic quality of Japanese woodblock prints (especially Shunga) are particularly inspirational to me and I love the beautiful intricacies of Chinese vases. And while we’re talking about Asian art and artists, the photography of Nobuyoshi Araki is a big current influence.
In high school I was OBSESSED with Surrealism - particularly Dalí, Man Ray, Magritte, and Leonora Carrington. Although my current tastes have moved past that, I still of course admire the work and I still like to use ambiguous imagery that can be confusing and unnerving. Literature has always been a love of mine and also greatly influences my work. Zola’s Nana and La Bête Humaine have directly inspired multiple pieces and I recently did an entire body of work based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
4. We see a lot of vaporwave aesthetics in your art. Is this something you're doing intentionally? What's your relationship to the vaporwave movement?
This actually isn’t something I’m doing intentionally! I didn’t elaborate on my influences of Nickelodeon and architecture because that’s where the vaporwave connection comes in. A lot of the patterns I use are from the 90s but that stems more from my love of Nickelodeon cartoons like Rugrats and Angry Beavers. In the same way, I tend to use a lot of grid patterns and blue line work because I like the way architectural drawings look (I actually briefly entertained ideas of being an architect before accepting that I’m crap at math and building stuff). I’m pretty terrible at anything technological, so I never played many video games (besides Oregon Trail, Lemmings, Sims, and Roller Coaster Tycoon) and I never even had a Myspace page since I was such a huge nerd. My love for tech, and why I paint it, comes from a love of Inspector Gadget and old James Bond movies. Of course, I’m still a product of my generation so it’s inevitable that I’ve seen Internet design and am influenced by it, but my direct influences are elsewhere.
5. What materials do you use to make your work?
When I paint, it’s typically on cradled wood panels that I prime before using acrylic and acrylic gouache.
6. How did you start accumulating your Instagram following? What advice do you have for other artists trying to get their work exposed online?
Haha I have no idea how I got so many followers because as I mentioned before, I’m shitty at tech stuff. I think I started getting more people following me on IG because I was showing with galleries that were more established and they would share my work and from that it kept growing. The most important thing to remember is to focus on the work. If you’re making good work, it really doesn’t matter how many followers you have because sooner or later Instagram will be replaced by something else so your work is the only thing that will actually last. That’s not to discount the huge advantage that online visibility can give you- I’m just saying that you should try to keep it in perspective because ultimately you want to make art, not be an IG influencer. Once you’ve made good work, be sure to take good photos of it! Seems like common sense, but a ton of people share dark, blurry pics of their work on a shitty table and even the best piece can look like crap in that context.
I’d also advise you to keep it fairly professional - I try not share too many personal images because ultimately then people are there to see you and not your work. Some artists do have amazing, more personal pages and share bits from their daily life but they do it in a way that informs their work and who they are as an artist. A picture of your dope brunch with friends is cute but should maybe be for a separate account or an occasional story. On a more practical note also - there are some really creepy people out there and do you really want them to know everything about you?
7. Your pieces depict such fully developed worlds. How do you generate all the little details that flesh out a scene?
That’s just the way my brain works I suppose! I love reading, I majored in Illustration, so I think my natural impulse is to try to tell a story. I usually start with a general idea and I come up with the main figure(s) and then I build the scene around it. I want, if not every object, but a great deal of the objects/surroundings to add to that story or enhance it in some way, be it visually or through narrative.
8. We read that you're interested in mythology and iconography. Should your pieces be interpreted allegorically, or are they more of a mood?
It really varies from piece to piece but yes some of my work can be considered allegorical (I’m specifically thinking of my series for my show Conflict/Resolution and my series based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses). Not all of my work should be interpreted that way though- I make a lot of irreverent works, I make a lot of work that is semi-auto biographical or only has some deeper meaning specific to me. I try not to limit myself or viewers by saying “this is what I paint, this is what it’s about” too specifically. Part of the fun in art is that it’s open to interpretation.
9. What challenges do you experience when creating art?
There are both emotional and physical challenges to making art full time. Everyone doubts themselves, everyone worries that what they’re spending all their time on is useless, meaningless crap, everyone feels like they aren’t good enough and should just give up and find something with a steady salary. It can be hard to get out of those ruts but ultimately, I always remind myself that I’m lucky and I should be grateful to have this opportunity and nobody ever accomplished anything by crying and giving up. It’s hard not to question yourself constantly and being an artist is a weird mixture of being a complete egomaniac on one hand and then on the other hand being an insecure ball of feelings. You have to learn how to tap into one side, when the other side is getting too overwhelming.
Physically, I’m tired a lot because when you work from home you have crazy hours and I rarely go to bed before 2am. Keeping up with the constant demand for work can be really draining (although again, I can’t complain too much since I am getting work) and my back and hand always hurt and you can start to get really weird if you shut yourself away in the studio too long.
10. What does the future hold for you? Are there any cool projects you're currently working on?
I’m currently preparing work for an upcoming show with my friend Jillian Evelyn at Corey Helford Gallery, opening September 21st. I don’t want to give too much away but the show is based on floriography and it should be really fun!
11. What's your favorite meme right now?
Haha that’s a great question and unfortunately I’m lame and I don’t have a favorite. I always get some good hahas from the Onion though! And I’m super happy they were able to survive the transition from print to online!