The women in San Francisco-born artist Kristen Liu-Wong‘s paintings feel familiar. Most are trying and failing to relax, some are masturbating and others are aggressively multi-tasking or reading on the toilet. All of them are trying to navigate the stress that comes with life, be it work or the desires of the id. The figures are, as the artist’s latest exhibition foretells with its title, Hard Pressed. As Liu-Wong’s fourth and largest solo show at LA’s Corey Helford Gallery, Hard Pressed (on view from 17 September to 22 October) is a maximalist revelry of contemporary anxieties, soaked in crude humor, sensuality and a stylistic melange of ’90s cartoons and folk art.
Liu-Wong describes the show as a juggling act right before everything topples over. She tells us, “There is, especially this past year, this constant pressure to balance work life, social life and then the whole backdrop of everything. This show is about the internal and external pressures that we face in our modern life and how we deal with them. It’s a show about trying to be human.”
Ironically, even the quest to be a well-balanced person is a cause for stress itself—a point emphasized in the exhibit’s figures who bend over backward to work, draw and eat simultaneously. It’s an image that succeeds in being both relatable and comical, finding lightness in reality and the work’s somewhat sinister iconography. Amidst the show’s paintings on wood, paper and wood cut-out sculptures, contemporary paraphernalia, items in disarray and other dualities burst forth, epitomizing the chaos happening within the characters.
But in depicting the mayhem of modern life, Liu-Wong also revels in it. Rather than shy away, the work leans into its many spills and tears. These, the artist explains, “are internal pressures that are human, like the drive to have sex or lash out in a bad mood.” To be in clumsy pursuit of peace is to also be like everyone else; this is a liberating realization which leaves room for grace and mistakes within an intense, modern world.
Sex, specifically women’s sexuality, is similarly de-coupled from shame. Hard Pressed presents women figures who unabashedly follow their desires. In a reversal of stereotypical roles, it is the men characters who are depicted in the periphery or the ones giving pleasure. The artist, who worked on the pieces for the show during the time that the US government overturned Roe v Wade and jeopardized access to abortion, was particularly thinking of gendered power dynamics. “One of the main pieces of the show was heavily inspired by 1973’s The Wicker Man and the visuals from that. At the same time, I was reading The Handmaid’s Tale and The Bell Jar. The ‘Wicker Woman’ piece was a direct response to how I felt society has been historically and contemporarily: bullshit.”
In another piece, “Rushing Waters,” Liu-Wong uses the motif of water to further naturalize women’s sexuality. The painting depicts a water nymph lying against a waterfall, tempting a nobleman while her River God father looks on. “The waterfall is almost a character in the narrative, because water’s like a force, a rush of emotions and hormones tempting you in,” she says. “For my reinterpretation, I wanted to recast the female figure, where she was once ethereal and pure and this nymph seducing this man, and make her human and still beautiful and seductive and powerful. Now, she’s tempting her horny playmate and they’re both horny. Women are no longer man’s downfall through sex; I want sex and desire to be simultaneously playful and powerful.”
Whether its characters, hormones or emotions, Liu-Wong allows all elements to be complex and contradictory, letting people and feelings that can’t be neatly tucked away into one box lie as they are. The same holds true for the Asian symbols, like koi fish, that run throughout her work. “I’m Chinese American, so I feel like I grew up in a very culturally mixed household,” Liu-Wong says. “I do refer to specific aspects from my cultural heritage just because I think it’s beautiful and interesting and part of my identity, and I think it brings my specific flavor into my work that’s not completely Western, not completely Eastern.”
While working on the show, the artist coincidentally decided to work under self-imposed pressure. For each of the paintings on paper, she challenged herself to paint a new object she never has before or paint a new pattern. Other times, she gives herself a constraint, like working within a specific color palate, in order to grow and try new things.
Much like the women she paints, Liu-Wong allows herself to be fully realized and complicated. Capturing and celebrating the anxieties of present day, her latest exhibit is a comedic and cathartic ode to being a mess.
Images courtesy of the artist