Lucy Liu plays herself on canvas. Her character? A person who picks up trash from all over the world. At the same time, she’s an ordinary human being who wants to connect, feel at home and be cared for.
Though most people recognise her as a figure who’s paved the way for more Asian-American representation in Hollywood through her past roles on the big screen — portraying feisty femme fatales in films such as Kill Bill and Charlie’s Angels — Liu has been perfecting her brushstrokes as a successful visual artist since the mid-1990s, rendering craftsmanship, determination and dedication in her creative works.
“She’s so intense,” admits Ryan Su of The Ryan Foundation, a non-profit arts organisation that has brought some of Liu’s artworks to Singapore. ”When you see Baby’s First Christmas — a Morpheus-like, amoeba kind of painting — you can see her brushstrokes. I’ve seen a lot of artworks so her intensity, her colours, her strength in this one is immediately recognised as her putting effort into her work — she’s not painting for fun. Also, something is going on in her mind, because that one is pretty aggressive.”
Her newest art series, Lost And Found, (currently on exhibit at the National Museum of Singapore ‘till Feb 24, 2019) showcases a more vulnerable, perhaps truer side to the actress. Found waste objects, from tiles in Massachusetts to letters in Lebanon, are carefully placed in more than 200 books — some glued, while others sewn to hollows cut out by Liu. The books themselves are discarded from an Italian printing press, which the 51-year-old couldn’t bear see being thrown out, and so requested to have them brought back to her studio in New York.
Now, a few thousand pristine pages act as frames for each garbage, as if they were pieces of art placed on a wall. “They seem very pleased and happy to have a place of safety,” Liu states. “And while these pieces are of loss, the project is not about dwelling on loss. They’re about creating a place for the loss. I think as a child, I wanted that. I wanted that feeling of being in a home, being taken care of, and having that feeling of being loved.”
Liu associates herself as a latchkey kid, the kind who carries housekeys around their necks. She and her brother would let themselves in after school, and they’d make their own TV dinners. “I didn’t know how to set a table until I was much older — which was not that long ago,” Liu chuckles.
The mother of one does know how to put on an art show that’s meant to inspire young people. “Firstly, I think it’s important for children to have access to art. I’m not saying that it’s not available. I think that for me growing up, my parents were very focused on education, which did not include art.”
She continues, “Children are such beautiful creatures. And I say creatures because they do things and say things that are just so innocent. And the beauty of that is through the purity of how they see things… My son once said a pair of dice on a T-shirt were cheese, because when he asked me what it was, I said, ‘What does it look like to you?’… For art is pure, art is open.”
Though in the very beginning, Liu wasn’t open about her identity as an artist to the public. Using her Chinese name, Yu Ling, it became a pseudo-pseudonym for the aspiring artist, or as she puts it, “a form of protection”.
Liu explains, “I don’t want to say it’s lies, because it’s not about lying. It was about protection…You get to know somebody through their art and it’s so scary to think somebody’s going to see me a little bit more. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? When you’re acting, you’re playing a character: You want people to see that person in any way you format that person to be: It’s an exposure.
“But when you’re showing your own artwork, it is very intimate, and terrifying. But ultimately, what you want is someone to feel the emotions for themselves, of safety, of connection, when they look at your work.”
And Liu is now a firm believer of building connections. “A lot of my works are about connection. The connections that we have are the friendships we create and that’s the world that I have and I know. In acting, you meet people along the way that you work for in a very intense period of time – and you might never see them again or you might see them in passing but you will always know each other and you will always feel that when you see them, whether it is on-screen. It’s the same with seeing an art piece.”