The September Issues

KRISTEN LIU-WONG

KRISTEN LIU-WONG IS AN LA BASED ARTIST WHOSE ILLUSTRATIONS REPOSITION THE FEMALE NUDE AS WHIMSICALLY EROTIC, POWERFUL, AND TOTEMIC. FELLOW PRATT INSTITUTE ALUMNI AND WRITER JILLIAN BILLARD RECONNECTS WITH THE ARTIST TO DISCUSS THE WAYS IN WHICH HER VIVID, VIBRANT WORK IS BOTH SEEPED IN MYTHOS AND ROOTED IN MODERNITY.   

A POX ON YOU ©KRISTEN LIU-WONG

words JILLIAN BILLARD

Kristen Liu-Wong’s work postulates an alternate universe in which the unruly power of the femme is unbound. Rooted in the art historical lineage of the reclining odalisque, the L.A. based artist’s scenes reimagine the way that we envision the female nude in art. Pictured in fits of ecstatic rage or a cool, cunning apathy, Liu-Wong’s distinctive figures possess a unique sense of agency—even when they recline languidly. With furrowed brows, bared teeth, and piercing, almond-shaped eyes, the artist’s robust protagonists are a raw force, not to be reckoned with.

Originally from San Francisco, Liu-Wong grew up thinking that she wanted to be a doctor. “I was really into E.R. in the 90s,” she laughs. However, towards the end of high school, she realized that she wasn’t so interested in the sort of discipline that the field would require. “I just had a lot more fun doing art, so I went for it,” says Liu- Wong. At 17 she moved to New York to attend Pratt Institute. “All of the artists I was really into at that time, like Alex Pardee and Skinner, were doing illustration, so that’s the direction I decided to go in,” she recalls. At first, school was a struggle for her. She felt pressure to create work that her professors would appreciate, rather than works that she wanted to make. “I was so tired of being miserable,” says Liu-Wong. “But then I saw Beautiful Losers, and I realized that I could do what I wanted and make a career out of it, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a Rembrandt, you know? That was really eye-opening for me.” At the same time, she notes the invaluable benefit of being forced out of her comfort zone. “Initially I was actually really afraid of using paint, or even color” says Liu-Wong. “It was really informative for me to be forced into these new territories.”

THE DYING GIRL ©KRISTEN LIU-WONG

Since completing her studies, Liu-Wong has developed a distinctive style that has risen to the fore of a new wave of contemporary artists. Working primarily in acrylic and gouache on panel, her scrupulously rendered works exist in a space that is at once fantastical, and deeply of this world. She revels in detail—often deriving influence from architectural and textile designs. “A lot of the patterns in my work come from buildings I see around town,” says Liu-Wong. “There are all of these grates with repeating modular patterns everywhere in L.A., and whenever I see a good one I draw it in my sketchbook so that I have a reference page of all of these grid patterns that I can use.” Many of Liu-Wong’s scenes take place in intimate interior spaces such as bedrooms or tiled bathrooms, but somehow manage to evoke this feeling of boundlessness. It is as though one might open their bedroom door to find that their room is floating in a pixelated realm. “My figures definitely exist in this parallel universe,” Liu-Wong admits.

"MY FIGURES DEFINITELY EXIST IN THIS PARALLEL UNIVERSE."

SQUEEZE YOUR NIPPLES ©KRISTEN LIU-WONG

Apart from their aesthetic allure and vivid color palette, the focus on our innate desires gives Liu-Wong’s work its charged, vibrant exploration of raw humanism. The magical worlds she creates are grounded in reality and authenticity. Liu-Wong incorporates elements that are personal to her—such as a favorite snack or beverage—in order to highlight fundamental aspects of everyday life. Animals also often appear in her work, appearing both as mythical protectors or salt-of-the-Earth reminders of our own wildness. This is representative of the realm in which Liu-Wong operates: the sacred space between fantasy and reality that explores playful female sensuality and imagination. 

This notion that sexuality is integral to the universal human experience subverts the taboo that positions the act as a spectacle. In their overt expressions of sexuality, Liu-Wong’s figures express this raw, female power that seems to say “yeah I’m masturbating, so what?” or even “yes, I will bite you until you bleed.” However, Liu-Wong’s work is not explicitly erotic. “I’m not necessarily trying to make pieces that arouse...they’re more explorations of my own relationship to sexuality,” says Liu-Wong. The figures’ seductiveness exudes not from a place of performance, but rather from satisfying their own fantasies and unleashing their unabashed nature.

Rooted in modernity and seeped in mythos, Liu-Wong’s work repositions the female nude as powerful, totemic, and whimsically erotic. It challenges us to reform our views of women as sexual objects, ultimately leading viewers to examine the relationship with their own sexuality. Imbued with natural elements, our intrinsic urges, and our fantasies— Liu-Wong paints a fantasy world that taps deeper into the human experience.

TIME FLEES, MAKE HASTE ©KRISTEN LIU-WONG