With their neon clothing and flowing hair, the figures that Kristen Liu-Wong paints look like they could kick the shit out of you.
A few clues might lead you to that realization: their bared and sharp teeth; their dark, almost pupil-less eyes; their brightly painted, talonlike fingernails; their unconcealed weapons.
In A Choice, a mysterious figure turns to the viewers as if caught in the middle of something. There’s a knife at her thigh, held in place by a high-tech cuff that seems to have buttons on it. She’s bleeding from a couple of places and there’s a strange, blue-and-pink gun propped up next to her. A broken window shows a glimmer of the sky outside and in the midst of it all a can of orange Fanta peeks out from around the corner.
Liu-Wong takes us on a journey with her acrylic pieces: She asks that we follow her into scenes from the not-so-distant future in which close battles must be fought in Spandex outfits and with weapons we don’t even know about yet. Take, for instance, a blade that protrudes from a spiked latex sleeve that makes the wearer look more like she has a tentacle than an arm.
For her current solo show, “Conflict/Resolution,” Liu-Wong created a series of brightly colored scenes that ooze “aggression and violence and other human emotions like that.” In each piece she captures “the conflict in our own natures,” the figures standing in for different sides of the human psyche.
“They stand in for parts of myself but they’re really heightened parts of myself,” Liu-Wong says. “They’re a lot stronger and fiercer than I am. In my everyday life I’m just a normal person. I’m not wearing Spandex onesies and shooting guns off. It’s kind of like a bit of escapism for me, but they also reflect all of the parts of myself — the vulnerabilities too and the weaknesses. The petty impulses.”
They also reflect her fascination with the contraptions of the future, a curiosity she’s been stoking since she was young.
“I was really into technology as a kid,” Liu-Wong says. “I loved Inspector Gadget. I loved the idea of the convenience in one thing, you know? That was just so amazing to me. And I liked technology because it’s kind of limitless in how you can make it up.”
Exploring these possibilities through art isn’t new to her, either.
“I had a little fake notebook that I made that I drew computer symbols and stuff all over when I was a little kid,” Liu-Wong says. “I used to carry it around and pretend that it was like everything I needed — like a vending machine, a computer. Just because I was really into that whole idea of being ready for everything, you know?”
The figures are clearly ready to fight — they have the tools and they have the brawn — but it’s not like each piece is supposed to be all fight and no play. You can catch Liu-Wong’s sense of humor in the little details, such as a still-smoldering cigarette butt or a pair of bunny slippers. In college, Liu-Wong was afraid of making art that “took itself too seriously.” Now she’s found a way to combine the two sides of her art making.
“I’m not some dark, brooding poet,” Liu-Wong says. “I wanted to always have a sense of humor in my work. And I still try to keep that around. I’m allowing myself to be a little more introspective with these pieces and I’m trying to take my work more seriously now. And just dig a little deeper with it. But it’s still fun to make silly things, too.”
And if the figures seem sexy, it’s because they sure as hell are meant to be.
“When I first started painting about sex, I’d say it was more from a curious, like, kind of distant standpoint,” says Liu-Wong. “Just because when I first started painting, I had just started having sex, because I was still young. And so as I’ve gotten older and probably more comfortable with my own sexuality, I’ve discovered that my women — they look more confident, too.”
As a hopeful illustrator, though, Liu-Wong often found that something as simple as her color choice got her quickly pigeonholed. One art director told her that he initially dismissed her work because he imagined she was just “another cute girl illustrator.” He ultimately ended up digging her work.
If anyone can convince the viewer that the color pink isn’t mutually exclusive with violence and fierceness, it’s definitely Liu-Wong.
“I don’t want my pieces to be like, ‘Oh, she looks sexy,’ and that’s where it ends,” she says.
We never quite know how it ends, really. We don’t find out who wins the fight or if the mysterious girl who burst through the windows ends up finding what she was looking for in the first place. This is Liu-Wong’s first big solo show, so we might find out later — but the real fun may lie in imagining the end of the story of ourselves.
“Conflict/Resolution,” Corey Helford Gallery, 571 S. Anderson St., Boyle Heights; through Oct. 21. coreyhelfordgallery.com.