Kristen Liu-Wong, Wrestling

On Valentine’s Day this year I started a lighthearted love letters column where I could (tongue firmly in cheek) send romantic missives to my favorite illustrators around the world. In the first I imagined living in quiet seclusion with British artist Henry McCausland, shacked up in a tree house where he would draw for me all day. He seemed to like the idea. In the second I asked illustrator Kristen Liu-Wong if the powerful, erotic protagonists in her paintings were supposed to inspire lust in the viewer, which pissed off a lot of people on Twitter, because it seems I did it in a pretty clumsy way. “How can I tell a woman she’s a great artist?” asked one commenter. “Oh I know, I’ll tell her that her art makes me want to jerk off.” Definitely not how I’d intended my article to come across. Incidentally—this is strange and degrading to write—Liu-Wong’s paintings don’t actually give me the horn.

While I wasn’t wild about being called a sexist on Twitter, I was encouraged to see people come to an artist’s defense when they felt a line had been crossed. But I was also curious to see whether Liu-Wong herself would be offended by my article, and if the whole fiasco might allow us to have a different conversation about the nature of her work than if I’d spoken to her without publicly embarrassing myself in advance. Here’s how that conversation went.

Kristen Liu-Wong, The Sensual Arrangement

You said in your email that you didn’t personally take offense to the piece that I wrote, but you can see why it would anger some people?

I think the problem people probably have with it is just that a lot of my work is made by a woman for women. So when a man talks about it in that way, I can just see how when it’s simplified down to that lust element it kind of misses the whole story. But also, I realize I make erotic art. It’s sexy, you know? I want it to inspire desire, too. That’s part of it. The images are supposed to be attractive. I don’t think your reaction was necessarily a wrong one. I didn’t take personal offense to that, obviously. I didn’t feel like you meant to violate me or dismiss my work.

Whew! I was pretty nervous about sending you the article after the reaction to it.

I’ve had some people say some pretty outright misogynistic, nasty things to me. Of course, I don’t mean like, your article was fine because those were so much worse—but let’s not be too dramatic. I thought the article was well-intentioned.

Part of why women like my work so much is because it helps them feel empowered, you know, they’re taking back their own sexuality. So when they see a male writing about it and he doesn’t mention any of that, of course it’s going to provoke. But I’m really glad that you contacted me because I didn’t even realize this had happened. I don’t own a Twitter account because Instagram is already too much for me to handle. So you could have gotten away with it. I wouldn’t have ever known!

That would have completely defeated the point of it. I felt guilty that I used your work in a context that had drawn some kind of negative response, even though the negative response wasn’t towards you and your work. I felt very uncomfortable with that.

I appreciate it. I think that’s one step in the spirit of true feminism that we just took. I feel like talking about it and seeing each other’s viewpoints and seeing where the disconnect is—because we all fuck up and say the wrong shit sometimes that’s offensive without meaning to. God knows if I was recorded it’d be terrible.

I wanted to ask you about whether making erotic work ever makes you feel vulnerable?

Yeah, definitely. That’s a small part of the reason why I don’t show too many pictures of myself. I just show the work. People already say enough online about a painting. I’m fine with my work being sexy, but I don’t want any of that on me.

Is that something you have to deal with often—people passing judgement or making comments about the work?

Occasionally. A lot of fans are women or enlightened men, if you will, so it’s not that often. But sometimes it’s like, “Ugh, I don’t want to meet that guy in real life. It’s just a painting, calm down.” I’m kind of glad that my paintings are that erotic and that they’re getting a response from people, because I think the first thing you want to do when you make art is get a response from someone, otherwise there’s no point in making it. Even if the response is a creepy one or the wrong one, it’s still good that people are reacting to it. You never want boring work, ultimately.

Kristen Liu-Wong, The Charmer

Your work has evolved in its sexual complexity since you first started out. Has that been a conscious thing?

It definitely has. Just as I’ve been exploring the theme more, I’ve been thinking about it more and thinking about my own sexuality more and getting more comfortable painting about it, I guess.

Does that then become a responsibility in a way, because people see their own sexuality through your work?

Yes, as my work becomes more popular and it’s interpreted and seen by more people, I’ve noticed that people do see their own things in it—which is great because that’s what I want. That’s why I paint my characters ambiguously.

“I never exactly said out loud, ‘Okay, I’m going to do all these paintings about strong women. I’m going to become some feminist artist. People are going to write articles about how I’m feminist.’ I never set out to do any of that.”

I paint women because I’m a woman. It was never a forethought to become a feminist activist or anything. But, of course, I am a feminist. I believe all of these things that people are attributing to my work, so it’s great that people have seen that and in doing so have helped me embrace it more. But then it becomes a little bit more of a social responsibility once you’re put into that category.

Early on in your career you used to talk about people taking sex too seriously. Do you still feel that way? Do you still feel like that is the core of your work?

Yes, I still don’t take sex that seriously. I don’t think any of the sex that I paint is great romance. Nobody is making love in my paintings. Everyone is just fucking. I’ve definitely started to think about it more because I think about me having sex a little more, on a deeper level.

How do you mean?

My attitude about sex was probably so casual back then because I was having a lot of casual sex. Now I’m with my boyfriend. At this period of my life, I’m not having casual sex, so that’s obviously going to reflect something different and I’m going to be thinking about different issues.

How do you feel about the fact that making work of a sexual nature opens you up to conversations like this?

I like it. I think we should be more open talking about sex anyway. I feel like once you’re able to talk about it more, then it takes away from some of that element of it being taboo or forbidden or something. But that’s also part of why it’s fun. Because it is a little hush-hush. You have to find a balance.

The violence in your work adds an additional layer of taboo, too.

I portray my sex a little more violent because I feel like sex can be and is a violent thing. It’s about power and dominance; there’s always someone who’s dominant. Sex is one of the biggest things that leads to violence. I feel like they are very wrapped up in each other. So to ignore that would be to ignore something that’s very integral to its core nature. It’s a violent act that doesn’t need to be, but sometimes it can be. When you do it, your more animalistic nature comes out.

I imagine that’s something that a lot of people would find problematic. The idea of sex being violent in nature is uncomfortable for a lot of people.

I mean, people are violent in nature. I think anything that we do is going to have hints of aggression, and when it’s a physical act, even more so. Like I said, I show dominance or violence within my sexual situations just because I feel like sex is such a power play, ultimately. That’s why, when my girls masturbate, they’re the ones with the power. I paint a lot of females masturbating because I love the idea of being able to pleasure yourself.

“Sex is all about power to me. It can be about love and acceptance, but I don’t want to paint rainbows. I already use enough cute colors, I don’t need to make cute subjects, too.”

I think we kid ourselves in a lot of ways. A lot of modern society is about a contradictory denial of the animalistic things we do.

Yeah, that’s why—going back to your original article—I think that’s why so many people had that problem because it was all about the animal brain. Maybe that’s why people thought that it was very “male gaze,” just thinking about sex.

What do the male characters in your work represent then?

Before I used to paint men a lot more and they’d be a lot more predatory because, at the time, I was feeling very vulnerable with men. Now I don’t really paint them as much, I guess because I’m focusing on me. When I do, they’re usually victims, I’ve got to say. Sorry guys! I like that role reversal because my women are so powerful and dominant, and kind of cold, too. The men are usually extras, for now. Who knows where they’ll be in my work in a couple of years, but, right now, I’m focusing on the ladies.

I feel like every day I’m reminded of how men are dominant in real life. So that’s why, in my paintings, it’s fun to imagine this world that’s run completely by women, and where I’m stronger, too. I’m not very assertive, I’m not very aggressive, I don’t get super mad. It’s hard for me to get hot in people’s faces and get the things I need. So these women are all of my fanciful wishings.

Kristen Liu-Wong, Nobody’s Fool