Sandra Liu: Visions

By Alicia McDaniel, Exhibitions Fellow

The Frank-Ratchye Project Space Gallery presents a new body of work by Studio Artist Sandra Liu. Saturated in color and rendered with careful attention to shape and pattern these abstractions represent the artist’s emotions of love, pain, and frustration. Visions functions as a personal documentation and reflection of Liu’s abrupt new life during the present shelter-in-place order. Concerned with the utilization and functionality of vision this work holds emphasis on the process of “looking inwards.” This sensation is communicated through Liu’s emotional depictions of her own internal feelings of uncertainty. 

Read more about Liu’s experiences and work in our interview below.

Frustration I, III, 2020, Colored pencil on paper, 5.5 x 8.5 in. each

Alicia McDaniel (Exhibitions Fellow): Can you tell me about your Visions series and when you started developing it? 

Sandra Liu (Studio Artist): I started this project about two or three months ago, about a month into the shelter-in-place order. I had a lot of limited materials- I’m usually an oil painter and I haven’t had access to my studio and I haven’t had the desire to paint much at home because it is a shared space. Colored pencils became a material to me because I could make drawings that were small, quick and intimate. The first one came about because I was dealing with a lot of stress and health problems so there were days when I sat on my bed doing nothing just watching YouTube videos to kill the time.

One day I thought I’m just wasting time. It sucks but sitting here doing nothing makes it worse for me. After this moment I created a color pencil drawing and then I decided to draw in this notebook whenever I felt terrible. These drawings became reflections of how I was feeling in those moments. The first image I made in this series is called Pain I and it had a few iterations later on. After I made that image I developed interesting ideas of shapes and colors that I wanted to explore. Not all of the images in this work are about pain, they are also about other emotions and experiences I had during the quarantine. 

AM: I understand that your Vision works are reflections of your feelings about life during shelter in place restrictions. Are your color decisions and rendering techniques specific to your emotions or are the selections more intuitive?

Concern, 2020, Colored pencil on paper, 5.5 x 8.5 in.

SL:  I was a painter before I finished all these sketches. It’s kind of funny because when I was in school, during my senior year of undergrad, I had a thesis professor who would look at all my sketches I made before I started painting. He would say “you know, this painting is great and all but I love your sketch.” At the time I really didn’t understand this because I used to feel very stressed out while drawing and actually I still feel anxious when I draw. That’s why my process in making Visions is so strange. I think that when I was approaching drawing before it was always narrative- there had to be a protagonist and a story. But in this new body of work I approach them from a color and sensory perspective. Usually I will compose a few colors in my head and I will pick a color scheme that I want to work with and then I envision the correct composition. Other times they come together, the composition and the color are inseparable.

AM: Your previous work considers Feminist frameworks for horror films. Are there any specific themes or elements that have carried over to your recent work?

SL: Yes and no. If we’re talking about Feminist frameworks- part of what inspired this series was my interest in Hilma af Klint’s work. She had a show at the Guggenheim and it was really early abstraction before abstraction was known. Her work had not been discovered until after her death. She was making non-narrative, colorful visual abstraction before people who had claimed that they created abstraction. It wasn’t until 100 years later, after her death, that her family allowed her work to be shown. Then she was uncovered as a great, abstract Feminist artist who was never accepted in her lifetime. It’s been very important to me, a book that I’ve been reading during this quarantine.

Part of what made me want to engage in a shift in subject matter is my interest in Horror.  It is a very bodily genre and it’s very emotional. Horror seeks to create a bodily sensation through fear or excitement and it is such a powerful sensation. This is why I always come back to Horror, Feminist ideals are very lofty but at the end of the day I really like that these films communicate an emotional experience in the viewer. Even if you don’t follow the story- film communications these sensations. A lot of my earlier works even before I started tackling ideas of the female gaze were really about psychological experiences. In this work I really let these experiences be the forefront. I removed narrative and focused on sensation to be the message that is communicated in my work. 

Summer Love, 2020, Colored pencil on paper, 5.5 x 8.5 in.

AM: Do you intend on continuing this project until the shelter in place is lifted?

SL: I hope that Visions can go beyond the shelter in place. This is something that I enjoy doing right now and this is something that I will return to when I feel inclined to. I think that what made this break for me was, if I told myself that I had to make a painting I wouldn’t make a painting. I hope that these drawings are something more accessible that I can return to during my career. This is a great way for me to process and it comes more naturally. I’m trying not to put time limits or stipulations on it.

AM: How has your work changed throughout your time at Root Division?

SL: To be honest I was experiencing an art crisis for a long time- I didn’t have a space to work in after school. I had the one apartment with the one wall where I worked. During this time I did a lot more digital work, not as much painting as I was used to in school. When I came to Root Division I was excited to have a huge space and there was this feeling of wow you have this whole space now and you gotta make stuff and now you have no excuse. This mindset intimidated me and removed the joy from painting for me.

So in the beginning I mostly used the space to connect with people and network. Then sometime around December I created my very first “eye” painting and that was the first painting that I thought to myself- Oh! You had fun making this. I like this. But I was also like how do I pitch this? It didn’t fit the statement I had coming into RD so because it was different it allowed me to step into a new process and project I was excited about. All the work I applied to RD with was very narrative driven and my recent work has become a lot more non-representational, a lot more abstract.

AM: Do you have any upcoming shows or projects that you would like to mention?

SL: I have a piece in an online auction “Out of Order” hosted by Maryland Art Place.  It’s one of the newer digital works that I am also currently making. I am excited about these digital pieces that I made and before shelter in place happened I was solely in the process of making digital prints for them. I wanted those to stand as a counterpoint to the actual paintings. So traditional paintings would be displayed next to these digital paintings. The paintings would be recreations of the digital works which naturally changes the image. This was a very challenging process. I’m excited to see how people respond to my piece from this body of work.

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