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“Sometimes I Just Like to Paint Sex”: An Interview With Kristen Liu-Wong

We spoke to Kristen Liu-Wong about her delicate, detailed, and super NSFW paintings.

Even though her art is full of naked girls, Kristen Liu-Wong doesn’t see it as erotica. Her illustrated scenes often look like they could be pulled from the glam cartoon storyboard of a futuristic TV show. Her female characters are just as likely to be hanging out with exotic pets, fighting monsters, or relaxing by the pool as they are to be having sex.

The LA-based artist has gained a large and loyal fan base on Instagram, despite the fact that her detailed drawings and paintings push the boundaries of social media censorship. Often, she has to place emojis or blurred pixels over butts and nipples so Instagram doesn’t remove her work. On the day of our interview, the artist’s most recent Instagram post featured a plea in the caption: “Please don’t flag—These are cartoon nipples and there’s no actual vagina showing. This is just a painting I spent a lot of time making and don’t want to ruin with blurred bits, thank you.”

Instagram has been widely criticized for its censorship policies, which many view as sexist because male nipples are fine, while female ones are verboten. Reported posts are quickly removed from the app, even if the female body depicted is clearly part of a work of art. Liu-Wong challenges this gendered censorship by continuing to share her work online, nipples and all. “No one’s making you look at my art,” she says.

We caught up with Liu-Wong right before the LA Art Book Fair, where she was showing a zine co-created with Luke Pelletier, as well as work she created with Juxtapoz, who featured her on the cover of their March 2017 issue. We talked to Liu-Wong about how she uses her work to explore her sexuality, what her family thinks of her explicit art, and how she stays on track.

“I don’t know that I really do focus on erotica. I don’t think of that way…sometimes I just like to paint sex.”

Hi, Kristen. Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and how your career got started?

I’m from San Francisco. I was born and raised there by my mom and my grandma, with my sister, so a family of women. My mom is an elementary art school teacher and my grandma was an elementary school teacher, so we’ve always been big on learning and going to museums. We were never wealthy, but my mom always made sure that we were exposed to high art at museums’ free days. I went to the Pratt Institute when I was 17, and I lived in Brooklyn for another two years after graduation. A little over a year ago I moved out to Los Angeles, and ever since then I’ve been completely freelancing.

How did you come to develop your style and focus on erotic art?

I first started doing work that looks more my style at the end of junior year of college, so it took me a while to figure things out. I was trying a lot of different styles in the beginning, like you do when you’re a young artist. I finally found what fit, and it has grown from there organically. As for erotica, I don’t know that I really do focus on erotica. I don’t think of that way. If I want to paint something in that theme, it just comes—I don’t specifically set out to do another erotica piece. Sometimes I just like to paint sex.

What’s your process when creating a new piece?

I start with an idea or an image I want to make, and then I thumbnail and sketch really rough. Then I start on a final drawing that I’ll transfer to my panel for painting. I hate things being messy and I’m not a spontaneous painter—I’m not just going to suddenly start with a blank canvas and then start painting. I’ll improvise pattern and color, things like that aren’t planned out, and I create the details as I go along. But in terms of composition, where everything is laid, everything is planned out first.

Do you have a favorite subject or topic to explore in your painting?

Recently I’ve been painting a lot of female masturbation. I’m really fascinated by the subject, the idea of pleasuring yourself. I can’t really masturbate well, so I’m very interested in it for that reason too. I get really awkward and I feel weird and uncomfortable. I’ve never successfully brought myself to orgasm. I wish I could, but it’s a work in progress. It’s like part of me is trying to familiarize myself with the idea by painting it.

Is your masturbation improving as you’re exploring it in your art?

I actually think exploring masturbation in my art is a way for me to put off having to explore it in real life. I haven’t tried to masturbate in probably a year and a half.

“I actually think exploring masturbation in my art is a way for me to put off having to explore it in real life.”

Are there other ways that your sex life or your sexual identity have informed your art, or vice versa?

Definitely! I’ve painted funny things that have happened to me having sex, like I painted a girl sitting on a guy’s face and it was because this dude just asked me to sit on his face once. I thought it was hilarious. Or all the bondage and S&M stuff I paint—I’m not super hardcore into it, I don’t have a sex dungeon or anything, but it’s definitely very interesting to me. I’ve dabbled.

What’s it like for you when people in your family or your personal life see your more explicit art? What has their reaction been?

Everyone I know personally has been pretty supportive. I’m sure some of my family members are more conservative, but I also don’t really talk to my family too much besides my mom and my sister. It’s not like I have to hear what they have to say anyway. The only person I can think of who’s important to me who would probably have a problem with me painting so much explicit imagery is my grandmother, but she passed away, so I have free rein now.

What projects you working on now that have you excited about 2017?

I’ll be at the Los Angeles Art Book Fair with a bunch of new stuff. I’m releasing a shirt, pin, thong, sticker, and print with Juxtapoz, and I’ll be there signing at the event. I’ll also be signing with New Image because my boyfriend Luke Pelletier and I are releasing a collab zine called Studio Daze. And then my whole year is booked out in terms of gallery shows. I can’t take on any more shows—I’m scheduled all the way into 2018. It’s going to be wild.

Is this the first time you’ve seen your art take off in this way since setting out on your own?

It has definitely taken off even more than before, but I always try to stay busy. Even when I wasn’t getting as much work as a freelancer, I would set deadlines for myself and create paintings. I do fewer gallery shows now because the shows I do are more involved, but I’m probably still making the same amount of paintings. I’m always trying to work and keep busy. Otherwise, I’ll go crazy.

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