Inside Kristen Liu-Wong’s Neon Inferno

Illustrator Kristen Liu-Wong chats about the inspiration behind her colorful world of sex and violence.

Often violent and sexually explicit, Kristen Liu-Wong’s illustrations confront the viewer with life’s realities through a combination of humor and symbolism. The intricate drawings—sometimes called “cartoon porn”—approach these heavy themes with universality, humanity and acceptance.


 

Los Angeles-based illustrator and painter Kristen Liu-Wong isn’t afraid to make you feel a bit uncomfortable. Creating candy-colored wonderlands of violence and sex, her work channels life’s everyday brutality with uncanny ease. Whether she’s depicting a futuristic underworld or just girls alone at home on their computers, each piece of art has a distinct blend of humor and horror. After graduating from Pratt Institute in 2013, Liu-Wong has shown in various galleries across the US with collections such as “500 Likes” and “NSFW.” We chatted with her about her fascination with serial killers, the power dynamics of sex and breaking into new mediums.

THE FRONT: HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE YOUR AESTHETIC?

Someone recently called my work “cartoon porn.” I know they meant it as an insult, but it made me laugh. I hope it’s more than that, but maybe it isn’t.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR STRONGEST SKILL? AND WHAT DO PEOPLE COMMENT ON THE MOST IN YOUR WORK?

I do a lot of intricate line work and patterns, so I guess that’s my strongest skill. People usually comment on the colors or the sexiness of the pieces.

WHO ARE THESE FEMALE CHARACTERS DEPICTED IN YOUR WORK?

A lot of them are substitutes for me or aspects of myself. But because I make them anonymous, with similar features, they can stand in for anyone viewing the piece. I try to not make work that is completely self-involved.

WHAT’S YOUR FASCINATION WITH SERIAL KILLERS? DO YOU FEEL A CONNECTION WITH THEM? DO YOU THINK YOU’VE BEEN DESENSITIZED TO VIOLENCE?

I don’t necessarily feel a connection with them. I can’t even smash a bug, so I don’t understand killing someone “recreationally.” I do, however, realize that we all have the ability to commit horrible acts in certain situations. Part of the reason I’m so interested in them is that they are just really extreme versions of all the terrible things we have within ourselves. A lot of them seem so normal, but their ability to deceive people is so creepy. But then again, everyone lies. So they’re just a twisted reflection of everyone else. I saw violence when I was young, and seeing it that young just made me fascinated with that part of humans. I’ve definitely been a little desensitized to it, as most of us have. Extreme violence is unfortunately pretty common.

“I never want to create something that I can’t be proud of and is dishonest to who I am. Part of the reason I’m so interested in [serial killers] is that they are just really extreme versions of all the terrible things we have within ourselves.”

WHAT ARE THE BIZARRE AND SOMETIMES VIOLENT NARRATIVES IN YOUR WORK A REFLECTION OF? IS IT A REFLECTION OF THE EXTERNAL WORLD OR YOUR INTERNAL ONE?

Both. I feel violent things inside of me, and I see violence all around me. My work tries to reflect that brutality.When someone’s getting stabbed or murdered in my paintings, it’s just a symbol of the hatred that surrounds us.

YOU’VE MENTIONED, “PEOPLE TAKE SEX TOO SERIOUSLY.” WHAT DOES SEX REPRESENT IN YOUR WORK?

Sex is sex in my work. It’s funny and confusing. People elevate it and are afraid of it. Because of that, I think it’s been made so confusing to a lot of people. But sex can also be a way of controlling someone, so sometimes, it’s a power play in my pieces.

IF YOU DON’T TAKE VIOLENCE AND SEX TOO SERIOUSLY, WHAT DO YOU TAKE SERIOUSLY?

In real life? I do take violence very seriously, just not in my paintings. And even though I don’t necessarily take art seriously (because I do think it should be fun), I never want to create something I can’t be proud of and is dishonest to who I am. I take death seriously because I’m human. And I take love very seriously. I’ve never been in love. I think people throw that word around too much. Love is incredibly important, and people always cheapen it by confusing it with other things. I respect love too much to do that. I’ve loved people, but I’ve never been in love. I think love is something that should be special and not easily given out. But maybe I’m just a robot.

WHAT’S MAKING YOU ANGRY AT THE MOMENT?

That is such a loaded question. A stupid thing I find upsetting is texting. Everyone uses it as an excuse to be flakey or hide from unpleasant situations. People need to face real life and take responsibility for what they do in it a little more. (Not that I don’t text, though.)

DO YOU HAVE ANY SUPERSTITIOUS BELIEFS OR SPECIFIC RULES YOU LIVE BY?

I always knock three times on wood so something bad won’t happen. The rational side of my brain knows it’s dumb, but my mom told me that since I was little, so hey, just in case.

HAVING WORKED ACROSS SO MANY MEDIUMS, FROM PAINTINGS AND ILLUSTRATIONS TO SILKSCREENS, SELF-PUBLISHED ZINES, EMBROIDERY, GLASSWARE AND VIDEOS, WHAT MEDIUM DO YOU PREFER?

I really love painting with acrylics and drawing. I feel like my strongest ability lies in those areas, and I like to do things I think I’m good at. I want to explore working in 3D more. I used to take ceramics when I was little, but I didn’t focus enough and kind of let that skill slide. So one day, I’d like to get back into it, make some sick vessels and paint them.

 

View more of Kristen’s work at her website.