Kristen Liu-Wong is a master of electric imagery. The San Francisco-born, Los Angeles based artist uses a sweet pastel palette to depict strong women at their best, while surrounded by environments that are not-so the best; from messy bedrooms to stained t-shirts and bathtubs filled with snakes. But that’s all in a day’s work of the illustrator and artist who has a devout online following and growing gallery presence in the L.A. art scene.
Liu-Wong’s Threadless Artist Shop features a variety of eye candy apparel, from pink t-shirts emblazoned with her trademark imagery of bold, strong women, one called the Noodle Lover, another escaping boredom by fleeing on a jet ski. An irresistible one is a laser gun, which looks like something out of 1960s-era Star Trek, or even one with a goddess-like woman with a slithering alligator. Melting ice cream and Marie Antoinette cakes are also a recurring theme in her work, too.
She recently opened a stunning solo show at the New Image Art Gallery in LA, which opened this week and runs until September 12, called Futile Fruits, where she’s showing five new paintings, three drawings and a special limited-edition print. She spoke from her studio to us about mythology, the female gaze, and why she considers herself a chicken.
Hey Kristen! What kind of question do you always get asked about your art?
Kristen Liu-Wong: I always get asked what my inspiration for my pieces are, and a lot about censorship as well as about Instagram and what I think about it. To be honest, that’s not one of my favorite questions, I’d rather talk about art. I’m not here for the tips on how to get a good Instagram account, I don’t really know what I’m doing [laughs]. I get asked about the sexuality in my pieces, the connection between sex and violence in my work, too.
I see your work as portraits of women where it doesn’t have to be totally aesthetically pleasant, it can be partly grotesque or not perfect.
Yeah, I used to paint more violence in my work. But through your life, you paint different things. But I always paint aggressive imagery.
Why? Or has that always been there since you’ve painted women?
I like images that are strong, they really engage the viewer. Bold work. That’s what I always wanted with my own work. I’m not the boldest person in real life, I have problems speaking up. In my work, I like it to be expressive, to do what I cant do in my day to day life.
I like that! It’s like your alter ego.
Yep, I’m definitely a chicken shit [laughs]. Anyone wants to start a fight with me and I’ll say: “Oh okay, you’re right.” I don’t like conflict. The women aren’t really characters. I don’t have names for them, they’re more ideas or embodiments of emotions. I love Frida Kahlo. I love art. Even if someone’s work is not my thing, I try to stay open minded.
How has it worked with your Threadless store so far?
I like being able to make work that’s available to people with good quality, affordable merch. You can still get something by me. It’s more low maintenance if you need it to be. Since I focus on painting and illustration, I don’t always have the time to buy the t-shirts, find a printer, and set up my own online store. You know? All that stuff. It’s great to have a good quality alternative to that with Threadless.
What’s the top best seller?
Let me check my dashboard now, hold on [laughs]. Okay, so the best-selling design is the space girl, the Space Babe, t-shirt. She’s sitting on a rocket going out into outer space, where she’s saying: “I ride alone.” It’s one of my oldest designs, but its one of the best. I did that in 2015 or 2016.
It feels like feminist surrealism?
You could call it that. I like to think of my art as a world that mirrors our own world, it’s like a parallel world. There are elements of our world in it and is set up in a similar way, but it’s also timeless. I prefer to draw older technology but there’s also futuristic, advanced tech, as well as elements of mysticism. Magic is real for some people but not everyone. There’s always a sense of possibility in my work.
What about that crystal ball piece? That feels mystical.
I was thinking of a woman holding an all-seeing ball like in Lord of the Rings, something where you gaze into the water to see your own reflection. I like looking to mythology for inspiration.
How NSFW is your art? Or is it something you feel you have to preface it with that.
Well, I don’t think its that NSFW, but people have reported me for all sorts of things. I make sure everything is censored before posting, but on my Instagram profile, I have a NSFW warning at the top of my page. It’s still really conservative, in a way.
So, you have to play it safe on a platform like Instagram?
I’ve found in general there’s different jobs in art. Artists who use erotic, taboo subject matter usually find it tough to find mainstream corporate jobs with money (until you get to a certain level). I’m thinking of the Japanese artist who paints those sexy, robot ladies, Hajime Soramaya. He has overtly sexy awesome work, but all the private parts are smoothed over. Not every company wants to work with an artist who has risqué imagery unless you’re the artist for it.
You’ve bridged the illustration, design, art world, and merch, how do you do it all?
I am lucky to have majored in illustration. I’ve always thought about working with clients, making money off your work. I wanted to be an editorial illustrator full time. When I first graduated, I saw art directors and emailed 100 and got one response from a guy who said: “Cool, I like your work.” It didn’t lead to a job. My work ‘belongs in galleries,’ they said. I got into group shows in college and it started snowballing. Art directors were right, my work took off in the gallery world. Once it started taking off, then the illustration work did, too.
What’s the LA art scene like?
It has a lot of great galleries, it’s vibrant. I only started experiencing life as a full-time freelancer in LA so I can’t compare it to New York City. In New York, the galleries there are very established, and it can be harder to get a serious show as an up-and-coming artist. My work is very illustration-based which makes it hard to get in a gallery, at least when I was starting out. I’m sure it’s different now. Bushwick wasn’t as established as it was when I left.
What do you have upcoming?
I have a collab show with Luke Pelletier making collaborative works sponsored by RVCA with Super Chief gallery. We’re doing giant wood cut outs, little bronzes made, it’s going to be really special.
Many of your works show strong women who are returning the gaze to the viewer, right?
Yeah, I like having the women in my works looking out to the viewer with direct eye contact.
How do you feel about the female gaze in contemporary art today?
I appreciate that I have opportunities that I wouldn’t have had 20 years ago. Definitely not even 15 years ago. I think of where I am in my life compared to my mom, who had 2 kids at my age and helped raise us and work for us. I get to pursue this dream career and make a living out of it. It feels like I have so many more opportunities because of the work that was done before me, I’m so appreciative. I really hope it’s not just ‘a moment,’ but growth of viewpoints that are expanding. The female gaze is becoming more represented not just in art, but in other areas as well, like mainstream media, where it really matters. I hope it’s here to stay.
Feature image of Kristen Liu-Wong photographed by Carmen Chan