Technicolor dreamscapes meet sex and violence in Kristen Liu-Wong’s Feral Ways
Kristen Liu-Wong is an LA based-artist whose paintings allow women to be the subject of violence, instead of just the object. Her neon archarist pieces reflect an animalistic rage in the midst of beauty, sexuality, and luxury. As womanhood is synonymous with sexual violence, Liu-Wong’s paintings create room for anger and vengeance, alongside the sadness and tragedy of misogyny.
One of Liu Wong’s evocative paintings, Jayne’s Way, recently showed at Juxtapoz Clubhouse in Denver. Jayne’s Way was inspired by a photo of Jayne Mansfield’s bathroom and by the late Hollywood diva herself. The painting is intended as “a sort of ode to this clever, complex, and often misunderstood Hollywood sexpot.” Mansfield’s mythology includes the morbidity of her death in a brutal car accident. Brutality and death are prominent themes in Liu-Wong’s work. Jayne’s Way reflects elements of “something possibly more sinister or morose occurring in the midst of all the decadence,” says Liu-Wong. She goes on to describe her methodology “I specifically left the scene ambiguous- is the figure simply lounging or passed out in the tub? Was she murdered? Did she kill herself? Beauty can sometimes hide something more rotten and I tried to convey that in this painting.” Liu-Wong reshapes Mansfield’s legacy from a Hollywood sex object to a participant in luxury, and potentially violence.
Feral Ways is auto-biographical, reflecting Liu-Wong's identity as a woman: complex, angry and flawed. “I want to represent women in a more layered way than they are typically represented.” In her work, this specifically means that her femme characters “aren’t always necessarily good or sweet,” but instead are often portrayed in poses of aggressive action and movement. Her femme subjects are laughing, violent, crying, scarred, eating, dismembered, engaged in sex acts or masturbation, and bleeding. Liu-Wong’s women are zitty and sneering. Very rarely is there a man in the frame, and when there is, he is in a position of subordination. Liu-Wong rejects the male gaze in her subject matter, and reframes the viewer’s experience with female sexuality through the violent and grotesque.
Liu-Wong often turns her specific lens on sexuality with images of women fighting and embracing, often at the same time. Nudity, sex toys, and masturbation are paired with open wounds, weapons, and snakes. Her recurrent use of serpents creates a certain mythology in her work, playing with themes of animalistic sexuality and violence. Liu-Wong explains that “snakes can either represent evil, temptation or knowledge,” imagery originally inspired by her Catholic upbringing. In the practice of religious abstinence, symbols of sin and knowledge of sin turn mystic. Temptation itself represents the link between sexuality and brutality. "Both represent the more animalistic aspects of our nature and occasionally go hand in hand.” Liu-Wong highlights sadism and anarchy, allowing savagery to be feminine. "People have killed for sex, people have died or hurt others because of sex, lust or love, some people get off on hurting others or being hurt.” This is true both on the broader, societal level, and in the way that individuals experience and perpetuate sexual violence.
Liu-Wong has recently addressed personal experiences with sexual violence in the caption of her recent illustration "Exposure," which was later removed after being reported to Instagram for nudity. She recounts an encounter had as a teenager, when a man exposed himself to her. "Exposure" is a representation of the anger she felt at the time. The desire for vengeance in response to being made to feel powerless and belittled. "Exposure" strikes a stronger cord with the viewer as Deborah Ramirez comes forward with allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh involving indecent exposure, and subsequent humiliation at a party in college. The painting fulfills a desire for control of the violence women experience, and a fantasy of enacting vengeance in the face of sexual intimidation.
Kristen Liu-Wong’s first book Losing Sleep is set to be released October 4th, and her show Feral Ways will be at Superchief LA until October 12th. She has prints available on Society 6.