L.A. Artist Kristen Liu Is Putting the “Real” in Unreal

Here’s to looking at life through a vivid lens.

Los Angeles-based artist Kristen Liu’s hyper-colored paintings command attention. Bright imagery contrasts with more mature subject matter, from graphic violence to overt sexuality, evoking an adult Lisa Frank vibe that’s equal parts honest and illusory. Liu paints what she knows through an imaginative lens, exploring universal themes that permeate her world, often riddled with pain or pleasure (or both). Paintings of warrior women entangled with animals and wielding knives or pleasuring themselves without reservation push against our deepest desires and most complicated emotions. In other words, Liu’s just conveying what it means to be human and not apologizing for it. We caught up with the artist to chat about female empowerment, the very real challenges of masturbating, and what she attributes to her success.

Your art juxtaposes a uniquely vibrant and fantastical aesthetic with dark themes. Have you always gravitated towards this style or is this something that evolved over time?
It’s a little of both. I still want to make paintings that look visually pleasing, but if it’s just visually pleasing, then it feels like straight-up eye candy. I feel like getting that contrasting theme with the super upbeat bright colors makes my work a little more interesting than if it was just one way or the other.

What inspires you?
Other art has always been an inspiration. I grew up going to museums with my mom and my sister, so I’ve constantly been exposed to what people are making. I’m a big fan of architecture, and for a while I was painting more buildings, so that was a huge inspiration to me. I like looking at textiles. The fences all around Los Angeles have great patterns, which I’ve stolen for my paintings. Just anything that visually catches my eye. I’m always trying to look for cool new things.

Your illustrations are so elaborate and seem to tell complex stories. Do you map out each piece before you start or do you draw as you go?
It’s kind of both. I definitely have a set idea in mind when I begin—either something I want to paint or something I’m feeling in the moment that I want to explore thematically. I’ll usually take a day to reset and just think about what I want to do. Look around for cool things, come up with a quality idea. It’s so easy to paint something that you know will look good, but if you don’t really feel into it, it’s like whatever. I’ll thumbnail out a piece—a really small, shitty sketch—and then I’ll start on the final drawing. I only make one drawing for each piece, and then I transfer that to the panel because I hate a messy panel. I tighten things up as I go, add pattern where I see fit. Paintings usually take me a while. Big ones can take me up to a week, but for the ones I’m finishing, I start to work on them longer because I get really excited about finishing them. Usually I’ll start out working nine, 10-hour days, but when I get into it, I’ll stay up until like 5 a.m. multiple nights to really get a piece tight. It’s kind of a hectic schedule. I have this intense fear of failure. I just thrive on stress. If I’m not stressing about something, then I feel like I should be stressing about something. I think I force myself to work longer and harder than I necessarily need to, just because I feel like I should be doing it.

Overt violence and sexuality show up as recurring themes in your work. As an artist, what draws you to these subjects?
I’ve always been really fascinated with violence. [It stems from] personal situations when I was really young and seeing people be more violent. I think I’ve been drawn to it more from younger experiences. And I’m really into true crimes. I’m fascinated by how creepy and gross people can be. Sex is always interesting because that’s what keeps our species alive. My work has tended this year more towards sexuality than violence. When I was doing my most violent paintings, I was going through a lot with a death in the family, so I think I was fixating subconsciously on this idea of violence and death. I think they’re interesting subjects and some of the most interesting things we can talk about that relate to us as humans. Everyone’s issues are either sex or death-related.

Do you find yourself translating feelings that you’re having in the moment to your pieces? Do they parallel what’s going on in your life?
They definitely reflect how I’m feeling at the moment. I’m actually pretty happy right now, which is kind of new for me in my life. For a while I was pretty depressed, so that’s why I was painting all of those stab-y, dying people paintings. And if I’m sad, that’s when I’ll paint someone crying or something. It’s an easy way to get out what I’m feeling without actually being like, “I’m sad.” My characters don’t really look like me, so it’s easier for me to have that separation.

Grids show up frequently in the background of your illustrations. What’s their significance, if any?
I really like the way they look. I was on swim team for most of my childhood, so you always see pool tiles. And I really love the way architectural proofs look, which is why I use blue ink a lot. I like that graph paper look, but I like to recreate it. I do all of my thumbnails on a graph paper pad that I just carry around. They have that nice, clean edge you rip off, and you can box things out really easily.

In much of your work, you portray females as warriors who celebrate their female form, and you often show them masturbating—a traditionally taboo subject that’s largely absent from mainstream media. What is the impetus for these representations?
I like the idea of being able to pleasure yourself and not relying on someone for that. I like that idea of female masturbation. I don’t know if I should share this but on a personal note, I’m actually really terrible at masturbating, and I’m super awkward about it. So part of that is just really wishful thinking on my part. I’m fascinated by this subject that I can’t quite get right, so I paint it. It’s almost like me trying to understand masturbation more through my work, which is what I did with sex in the beginning, too. When you’re a virgin, you have no idea about sex. And then as you get older, you have more and more sex, so that’s why I think my paintings have become more sexual recently—because I’m getting more comfortable with sex. They’re ways for me to explore what I’m not quite sure about. I’ve had issues with men and sex for a while, which is why I paint it so much. You’re fascinated by what you don’t fully understand. I guess that’s why I paint death so much [laughs].

What role do animals play in your work?
On a pretty basic level, I love animals. I think they’re really tight, and I tend to get along with animals better than people. I love the way they look; they’re a part of my life. Also, a lot of animals have had symbolic meanings throughout history. Everyone immediately associates the snake with a penis or with evil. When you add that to a picture, you’re bringing those connotations, so you get to have a cool-looking animal and you also get to add another layer of meaning to it. I like painting these ferocious beasts that don’t really pose any threat to the girls they’re with, even though they look so feral. They tend to also act as mirrors, in a way, for the savage girls I paint. It’s a mixture of all those things. I like them to echo each other. I’ll have a pretty girl, and she’ll have this ferocious beast with her, but she doesn’t seem fazed by him. She seems almost to be working with him and having power over him, too.

You were recently a part of MissRepresentation, an art show praising women of color. What has your experience been in the art world as a WOC?
My experience in the art world so far has been good. Most people I work with are friendly and respectful, but I’m also aware that it’s not that way for everyone. Overall, I’ve been lucky enough to find people who have been receptive to my work and to me. There’s definitely a disparity between the amount of male artists represented than female artists and WOC. It’s fucking tough out there being a woman. I’ve also noticed that it’s harder for women to ask for things. My boyfriend, he doesn’t have any problem asking people for pay or asking them about the budget. I feel very nervous about asking people for things or demanding things from people. I feel like, as a woman, you don’t always expect to get what you ask for, and if you’re a white male, you’re more used to getting what you ask for, so maybe you get more in return. I’m trying to work on that—being more assertive, more business-minded, demanding what I want.

What do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
In March, I’m doing a small show with New Image Art. Monica Kim Garza is going to be in the front room and will be doing a bunch of paintings for the back room. In September, I’m doing a solo with Corey Helford gallery, which is going to be a lot of work because the space that they’re giving me is huge. I also just got the cover of Juxtapoz for their February issue, so I’m really excited about that. They had me make a piece for it, and it’s a dream come true because I used to be all about—actually, I am still all about—Juxtapoz. When I was in high school, I used to complain to my sister because she interned at FIFTY24SF Gallery in San Francisco. I was like, “I’ll never get a show here. I’ll never get to be in Juxtapose.” And now I’m getting the fucking cover, so I’m hyped. I’m just terrified my world will come crashing down, but I’m appreciating it for now.

What advice would you give to young artists who want to pursue art as a career?
Fully commit to it. You have to do everything you can for it. If that means pulling all-nighters after you have a day job, which I did for two years, and then saving up a bunch of money, you need to do that. And you need to be constantly making work because people only care about your latest piece. You can do the greatest piece, but if you haven’t made something for three months, nobody’s going to remember you. You always have to be working, and you always have to be challenging yourself to work harder, never growing too complacent with anything you get. I’ve realized that I’ve reached the goals I set for myself in college, so if I stopped now, then I’d just go nowhere. You always have to create new goals and push your work farther and farther.

Check out more of Kristen’s work here.