Lucy Liu’s Longtime but Little-Known Art Practice Is Deeply Moving
Portrait of Lucy Liu. Courtesy of The Ryan Foundation.
Lucy Liu, You Are the Bridge. Courtesy of The Ryan Foundation.
Protection. Safety. Vulnerability. Introspection. Connection. These are the words Lucy Liu’s art brings to mind. Yes, this is the Hollywood actor Lucy Liu, whose rise to fame began while playing the memorable role of Ling Woo in the popular television series Ally McBeal (1997–2002). This was followed by leading roles in major blockbusters such as Charlie’s Angels (2000), Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), and most recently, co-starring in the Sherlock Holmes–inspired crime procedural series Elementary, which embarks on its final season in 2019. But before she was an actor, Liu, now 50, was an artist—and still is.
Liu’s interest in art began at the age of 15, and she has been showing her works in solo and group shows in the U.S., U.K., Germany, and Canada since 1993. Working out of a studio in New York, she now dabbles across various media, including ink drawings, paintings, silkscreens, and collages. However, most of Liu’s works involve discarded objects that she collects and transforms into emotionally resonant, intensely personal artifacts.
This month, a selection of Liu’s works from 2001 to the present are on display in Singapore as part of “Unhomed Belongings,” an exhibition described as a “visual dialogue” between Liu and established Indian artist Shubigi Rao. The show is presented at the National Museum of Singapore by the Ryan Foundation, a private nonprofit run by Singaporean art collector Ryan Su.
Speaking at the exhibition’s media preview on January 10th, the actor-slash-artist explained how her childhood in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights influenced her preoccupation with found objects, as well as the themes of safety and protection that underlie most of her work, including the “Lost and Found” series (2012–present).
“My parents were out all the time working. We were latchkey kids,” Liu recalled. “I had siblings, and we would let ourselves in after school, we’d come home and make ourselves TV dinners, so it was just about very basic things like survival. And finding this series ‘Lost and Found’ was about finding a place and belonging somewhere. I have always wanted that nurturing feeling, the feeling of being taken care of and loved.”
Lucy Liu, Lost and Found . Courtesy of The Ryan Foundation.
The “Lost and Found” works, which are on view at the museum, are still in development because Liu describes the series as a lifelong project. These sculptures comprise pristine books—each one covered in fine, colored fabrics—which Liu acquired after a printing house in Italy had thrown them away. Inside the books, she cuts into the pages, carving out holes that are just big enough to house objects found on the street, such as colorful electrical wires, a crushed can, or a Tic Tac container.
“I would see [discarded] things on the ground and pick them up,” Liu said of the origin of the series. “I actually felt sorry for things thrown on the ground or discarded, and it sort of just broke my heart. I made it a point of picking things up, and I used to put them in a box, but I started putting them in books.”
The process, Liu noted, was more difficult than she’d expected: “My fingers would be raw from cutting these pages,” she said. Once the objects are glued into place, and the books can be opened to reveal them, “there’s this discovery of the objects as beings,” Liu said, “as living and breathing things and they seemed very pleased to have a place of safety.”
Lucy Liu, Lost and Found (Book 3). Courtesy of The Ryan Foundation.
Through these works, Liu places her personal vulnerabilities front and center, in a way that’s particularly disarming coming from a very private Hollywood actor, who even used a pseudonym to show her art up until 2011 (she went by her Chinese name, Yu Ling).
The works embody the sense of safety that Liu yearned for as a child, and she hopes that the audiences can feel that. “What you want is someone to feel [a sense of] safety when looking at your work, so they can feel it, too, for themselves,” she added. Though not groundbreaking, the pieces do resonate in their ability to reveal a person’s deepest vulnerabilities and yearnings.
Some of Liu’s most interesting work—which is not shown in the current exhibition, but which she recently discussed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert—explores the human spine. This series, called “Totem,” includes pieces made up of various media, such as biological drawings stitched onto canvas, along with the occasional affixed found object. According to Liu, this series represents the various disconnections people experience, even though we are all made up of the same materials. The series also references the connection between emotions and physical pain; for example, when someone has back and shoulder aches, it may seem physical, but could also be the result of emotional distress.
Lucy Liu, Except Sometimes I, 2013. Courtesy of The Ryan Foundation.
It is clear that Liu aims to represent intangible feelings in her art, feelings that come across quite vividly through her highly personal approach—which she hopes, in turn, will impact the viewer.
“I’m sure the audience, at least at some point in their life, sees something that almost changes them on a cellular level, where your chemistry feels like it’s different,” Liu offered. “When that happens, it’s such an inspiration, and it’s such a significant moment. It spurs you to be somebody different or more than you are already. [It] spurs you to do something different.”