When one thinks of Lucy Liu, it is natural to consider the world-famous and accomplished actor that starred in countless classics of the 2000s such as the Kill Bill films, and the Charlie’s Angels franchise. Liu is much more than solely an actor, however. Although she’s proven to be an expert producer, these days, her main creative pursuit is her visual art, a medium of creative expression that she somehow manages to balance with her acting and directorial careers.
It transpires that Liu has been an avid artist since she was a teen. Her first foray into the art world did not come via the paintbrush though, rather the camera. Growing up in Queens, New York, in the ’80s, Liu would roam the streets of New York taking pictures of everything and anything. A collage artist at first, one of her earliest series captured the scenes of a pro-choice march in Washington D.C. A lifelong feminist, this would set a precedent for her art and life moving forward. Liu would soon feel stifled by the camera, however, feeling that she wasn’t able to fully express what she wanted via photographs. With the feeling growing stronger, she turned to painting.
Given that Liu is hailed as a trailblazer in terms of helping to change racial stereotypes and gain equal rights for minorities in Hollywood, her Asian-American background has had a massive impact on the thematic direction of her artwork. In fact, she’s been very open about the fact that her art provides a link between her adult self and her childhood.
“Because we were an immigrant family and I am first-generation, I always had this imbalance of belonging,” she told Artsy in 2020. “I think at first it was the language barrier, not speaking English, but then it started becoming about how I look.” Using art as a means of reflecting on her younger self, Liu opined: “I think that art helps evaluate some of the psychology of yourself as a child, and to illuminate some things you may never have understood”.
The confused feelings that stem from the concept of belonging fed into her recent series ‘Lost and Found’. The project embeds discarded objects that Liu finds on the street into beautiful books. She’s been collecting discarded items since her childhood, and each one in her extensive collection has a story to tell and prefigures a specific time and place in her life.
Liu explained that the discarded items she finds always provoke a palpable emotive reaction within her. The idea that they’re no longer useful and disregarded “resonates” with Liu. The practise started when she played with her siblings after school and would pick up items she found amongst the rubble of demolished buildings as New York was shedding its post-industrial skin. Liu would put them in a special “shadowbox”, and recalls that people would be “disgusted” by her picking up seemingly random objects off the ground.
Unrelenting, at the age of 52, Liu has maintained her work and travels with a Ziploc bag at all times, ready for unearthing the next piece that will aid her introspective journey.
Her rigid and somewhat traditional upbringing also influenced her work, and she’s used it as a means of deciphering her complicated relationship with her father. Her family were conservative and never discussed sex and the human form, which fed into Liu’s fascination with anatomy. Her work is filled with naked bodies and abstract, often erotic, depictions of the human form. Sometimes, she depicts intimate stories inspired by the formate of the traditional family photograph. Her gorgeous painting, 2006’s ‘Stephanie Reading’, is perhaps the best reflection of this sentiment in her work.
Aware that fine art is a struggle because it’s effectively the artist looking hard in the mirror, Liu also acknowledges art’s fluid nature, and it is this that has led her to create a whole host of artworks from different mediums. She said: “You have to be ready to have that privacy and focus. Sometimes you don’t have it. It is like performing when you don’t have a script and a general idea, you can improvise”.
Aside from paint, she’s used silkscreens, ink, collages and woodblocks to create her artwork, showing herself to be an adept postmodern artist whose only goal is to dig deeper into the tacit elements of the human condition and to understand herself further.
Perhaps it is time people started regarding Liu as an artist rather than plainly an actor. It’d be a great shame to miss a Lucy Liu exhibition next time one’s in your local vicinity.
Watch Liu discuss her art below.