One to Watch

Melding Magic and Realism with Caroline Liu

In Caroline Liu’s mixed-media paintings, vibrant pigments, glitter, plush faux fur (yes, fur), and semi-abstract figures collide in visual flurries of memory and emotion. 

Seeking to process her experiences as an Autistic adult, and grapple with the short-term memory loss she incurred after a series of concussions, Caroline turns to visual and tactile mediums to document memories and give form to their thoughts and imagination. As viewers, we find ourselves hypnotized before Caroline’s meldings of magic and realism, and comforted in their universal portrayals of joy, grief, and uncertainty. 

A muralist in addition to her painting practice, Caroline has collaborated with international brands including Lululemon, Vans, and Adidas. She has held residencies at the Chicago Artists Coalition and Hyde Park Art Center, and her work has been published in New American Paintings and the Chicago Tribune.

Tell us about who you are and what you do. What’s your background?

I am a painter, seamstress, and muralist who was living in Chicago the last several years, and now currently reside in the place where my spirit feels most at home—Albuquerque, New Mexico. I graduated from the University of New Mexico with a Bachelors in Fine Arts and went on to work in healthcare for a few years. From there, I specialized in working with adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. This gave me so much perspective that I now realize fundamentally helped the trajectory of my life, identity, and arts practice.

What does your work aim to say? What are the major themes you pursue in your work?

My work explores all the facets of my identity throughout the last decade. In 2012, I experienced a freak accident that left me concussed, which changed the course of my life, and my work started to reflect that. I created memory paintings that documented time and place. It grounded me and let me sort through trauma in so many therapeutic ways that it eventually allowed me to discover a huge part of myself that had been severely overlooked.

I always had an inkling from years of working with adults on the spectrum, but it finally took many years of paintings and reflection to start paying more attention to the type of work I was creating and the ways in which I existed in the art world. I have always felt I never fully understand conversations or unspoken rules, like something was missing and, because of that, I felt like my work had gone largely unseen.

I finally sought a diagnosis and in the beginning of 2020, I was diagnosed as Autistic. It’s been a whirlwind of a journey that I’m so thankful to be on. Having this part of my identity nourished and highlighted has brought my work into a whole new level of understanding and adventure. I now aim to create fantastical narratives that bind together magic and realism, and that spark larger conversations of loss, joy, and the eternity of self.

Can you walk us through your process for creating a work from beginning to end?

I tend to work in two very distinct blocks of time that usually last between 2-3 months each. The first block is what I call my Absorption Period. During this period, I tend to not create artwork with purpose. I spend a lot of time dabbling in hobbies and creative experiments that bring me joy, while also spending more time in nature, lonesome meditation, and around animals. I truly desire to absorb life around me. I fill my life and, after a while, I am filled with so much good energy from the world around me that I feel like I’m about to burst. Once this feeling arrives, I know it’s time to start creating with purpose.

My second block of time is my Creating Period. During this time, all the information that I absorbed comes rushing out of me into fantastical narratives that evoke all my thoughts, feelings, and emotions. From there, I spend countless hours and days simultaneously creating dozens of paintings, several side projects, and numerous new experiments until I’ve explored every last area of my mind. I finish all my work at the same time, marvel at my intense productivity, and then enter another Absorption period.

What series or artistic project are you working on next?

I am currently exploring self portraits that bridge the gap between light and dark, encompassing the range of my emotions as a late-diagnosed Autistic person. Using colorful daydream-like visuals, I aim to center my past self alongside my newly blossoming identity. Having had to hide my authenticity for years- now really feels like the time to visually explore this new version of myself.

Why art?

I communicate best through both visual and tactile experiences. Verbal communication and unwritten rules of society have always been my achilles heel, so finding expression through paintings and plushies gave me a voice that I did not have before. Art is how I communicate, how I relate to those around me, and how I regulate my own emotions. Without it, I would cease to exist.

About the Author

Bethany Fincher is a curator at Saatchi Art. Need help finding art? Contact her via our free Art Advisory service at saatchiart.com/artadvisory.