Just a week ago, there was an article at Artsy discussing the line between art and pornography. Yeah. Really. This is an old discussion, and one that I am surprised is still happening. I think that porn can be art, and that art can sometimes be pornographic. Simple enough, right? I mean, I have zero experience with pornography, so it’s not like I can really say for sure.
But Kristen Liu doesn’t paint pornographic images -or maybe she does. You may find yourself (like me) gazing at some of her works that aren’t erotic in nature, and still feeling like… it’s erotic (come on, just look at that fish with its guts sliding out of its belly). But if her mind and paintbrush are in the gutter, it’s a gutter filled with vibrant colors, and symbolic, evocative imagery. You’ll look at it, and you’ll like it.
When did that moment of “God! I want to do this for the rest of my life!” hit you?
I guess that moment happened for me in high school when I decided to apply to art school, as opposed to a more traditional college. I knew I wanted to do something in the arts, but I didn’t believe it was actually possible for a really long time after that, until I actually started to be able to support myself from freelancing!
Who were your influences, and who do you favor in the art world?
I look at a lot of artists! I love the work of Grandma Moses, Alex Katz, Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Hokusai, Yoshitoshi, Ken Price, Tamara DeLempicka, Jonas Wood, Utamaro, Henry Darger, Greek and Chinese pottery, old Nickelodeon cartoons…
In your Still Life with Pineapple, there’s a prescription bottle with the Walgreens logo barely visible on the side. It’s not quite the kind of detail one would expect in a painting, unless it was somehow relevant to the piece.
Is it relevant, or just random?
No all of the details I include are purposefully included! Usually they reference actual things in my life that have some sort of meaning to me. That pill bottle I painted was an actual bottle I had, whenever I put a title on a book in a piece, it’s a book I’ve actually read and enjoy, if there’s a snack or beverage, it’s something that I like to eat or drink. By including these personal details, I feel like I’m making the piece more personal to me, and I almost think of them as private jokes.
I’m amazed that you are able to convey such raw sexuality in your work, that is exceedingly expressive, without becoming pornographic.
Thank you! My erotic pieces are made so that I can explore and express my own sexuality and my evolving relationship with sex, so I want them to convey that impulse. I hope that this makes them feel a little more “personal” than your average pornography.
Some of your more raunchier work has the “naughty bits” censored, and I’m not quite sure if it’s part of your artwork, or censored for the web. It seems to work either way.
Oh, it’s censored for Instagram. I’ve had multiple pieces taken down if I don’t censor uncovered genitals and it pisses me off but since my career is so closely tied to my account I’d rather not risk it.
There’s a lot of symbolism in your work, but is it truly symbolic, or did you just throw some cool stuff in there?
A lot of the objects I paint are symbolic for me, and I include them because they add something to the meaning and overall narrative of each piece. I was baptized and raised Catholic, so religious symbolism has always been a part of my visual vocabulary. I also include personal symbols too (pool imagery, animals, etc), and certain nostalgic objects reference my childhood as a kid growing up in the 90s.
What medium do you work in, and do you have a preference?
I work primarily in acrylic and acrylic gouache on wood panel for my paintings, but I also make drawings that I color with acrylic gouache or markers; for illustration work I draw a piece and then I scan it in and color digitally.
And I prefer painting and drawing to digital work but it is great for those fast deadlines.
Your use of color is “delicious”, bright and colorful, but not jarring. Were the vibrant colors necessary to maybe add depth to your subjects and their environment?
I like how the bright playful colors contrast with the sometimes aggressive, violent or disturbing imagery I paint. I think it creates an interesting dichotomy that adds to the overall visual complexity of the piece. But also I just like the colors I use for aesthetic reasons. I think they’re pretty and fun. (laughter)
Has any of your work been featured at any exhibitions, or can we find anything of yours in a gallery? Do you even care for that sort of thing?
Yes, that’s actually how I got my start. I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to be in a group show in Brooklyn after graduation, and from that show I kept on getting more offers to be in other gallery shows, etc. I think my work looks best in person, so while I’m super grateful that so many people have been exposed to my work through the internet, I still feel like gallery shows are an important, real life aspect of my career. I currently am in a group show at New Image Art, and my work can also be viewed at the Museum of Sex in NYC. I have some group shows coming up too so keep an eye out.
Betty Davis is one of your subjects, and I’m assuming you’re a fan of her music. Who else is on your playlist?
I listen to bunch of different artists but I’ve got to give a special shout out to Enya, because her music is able to calm me down and whenever I feel overwhelmed I just need to listen to her and I always feel at least a little bit better. I had a dream that I visited her and her cats in her castle the other night and it was so magical.
Do your friends and family think you’re bizarre, do they look at your work and give you side-eye?
Well most of my friends are interested in the arts too. My mom is and elementary art school teacher, and my sister majored in Art History, so they’re all pretty open-minded about what I paint! I don’t really interact with the rest of my family, so I don’t care what they think about my work.
What moves you, Kristen? From where does the joie de vivre in your work come?
Art moves me! It’s the ultimate expression of all the beauty, joy, pain, and hideousness that is part of the human experience. A great book can really move me too. After reading D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love”, I felt like my life had been changed. And Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon” can always make me cry. I make paintings because I hope to leave something good behind that can still speak to people once I’m gone in the same way these works speak to me.