Is Lucy Liu an Acclaimed Artist Known for Her Lesbian Paintings Under the Pseudonym Yu Ling?
On November 5 2019, a Facebook user shared the following post about actor Lucy Liu, indicating they were “today years old” when they discovered Liu was an accomplished artist under a pseudonym (“Yu Ling”) in addition to her acting credits:
Alongside photographs of various works, Liu, and Liu posing with paintings, the user wrote:
I was today years old when I found out Lucy Lui [sic] is a world renowned artist known for her lesbian paintings under the pseudonym Yu Ling (which is her Chinese name) and I have no idea what to do with this information.
The “today years old” text meme is common on social media as a shorthand way of presenting information intended to be surprising or otherwise novel to fellow readers. In this instance, the interesting claim hinged on Liu — known for starring in films — somewhat secretly held down a successful career in the art world as well.
A day after the claim was shared to Facebook, it appeared on Reddit’s r/todayilearned. However, the post was removed and tagged “not supported,” and users asserted the post had a “shitty clickbait title”:
TIL Lucy Liu is a world renowned artist known for her lesbian paintings under the name Yu Ling from todayilearned
Lucy Liu’s IMDb bio cited a birthplace (Queens, New York) and a full name of “Lucy Alexis Liu.” On Wikipedia, a section of Liu’s page stated that in her career as an artist she “previously presented her artwork under a pseudonym, Yu Ling (which is her Chinese name.)”
On November 5 2019, TheCut.com published an item titled “Did You Know Lucy Liu Creates Beautiful Erotic Paintings?” The piece asserted Liu is a “visual artist who paints (among other things) lesbians entwined in bed,” but added that “she’s been showing work in private and public art shows since 1993.” A January 2019 article on Artnet.com indicated Liu had a show in Los Angeles as far back as 1993:
Liu’s Twitter feed over the years shows her trying her hand at everything from printmaking to sculpture, and looking effortlessly artsy in paint-splattered jeans in film clips for Hunger magazine and the Guggenheim’s studio sessions. And unlike some other celebs who only take up a paintbrush between seasons or tours, Liu has an impressive resume that includes shows at Cast Iron Gallery back in 1993, LA’s Purple Gallery in 1997, and two years studying art at the New York Studio School, from 2004 to 2006.
In that reporting, the site referenced a show in which Liu’s work appeared:
The show also includes a dual-sided photo-collage, titled Velocity, that Liu made in response to the September 11 attacks. The artist took the photographs of the New York City skyline from Battery Park, a reference to the physical site of the attacks, while the collaged fabric and skeins of paint grafted over top allude more to the emotional and psychological effects. A tightly bound string on the back of the canvas holds several objects in place—a reference to Congolese symbolic traditions and Japanese “wish trees.”
Also in January 2019, Artsy.net’s “Lucy Liu’s Longtime but Little-Known Art Practice Is Deeply Moving” reported:
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.
[In January 2019], 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.
It is not uncommon for coverage of Liu’s art career to make mention of the author’s new discovery involving Liu’s art. But Liu’s art career has never been a deep secret; in October 2011, The Guardian interviewed Liu on the subject of her art. In that piece, she described herself as always having been an artist:
“I have been known to dumpster-dive,” says Lucy Liu. “If I see something really fascinating and warped or distorted, like a piece of metal, I’ll jump over and grab it and create something from it.” Liu is talking about the roots of an artistic urge that began in the wastelands of Queens, New York, where she grew up. “There was something very warm about sitting in this environment of junk and rubble and discarded things, lost things. I had such a feeling of being at home.”
This dumpster-diving “Lucy from the block” image is difficult to square with the elegantly attired woman curled up on a chair in front of me at Salon Vert … Liu has always been an artist, she explains. Even while she was shooting movies, she would be drawing or sewing in her trailer. But seven years ago, she scratched her art itch more seriously by moving back to New York, buying a live-in studio, and enrolling at the New York Studio School. “I realised it was something I needed to do,” she says. “It was important for me to go in that direction for my own sanity. So I went for the summer and I just realised, ‘Oh my God. There’s so much here that I need to explore.'”
That story reported that Liu had previously exhibited her work under the name Liu Yu-Ling, and her use of “Lucy Liu” in relation to her art was still novel at that point:
Although this [2011 exhibit] isn’t her first show, it is the first time she has exhibited under her own name, having previously used her Chinese one, Liu Yu-ling. “If I see something when I’m travelling,” she says, “or if I come upon something and I don’t understand it, I want to know more about it. I have to do something with it. Otherwise, it’s like rehearsing something but never actually performing it. You just feel like you’re going to explode.”
As early as 2010, blog posts and art auction news about Liu’s work appeared. News about the sale of her painting Forever Goodbye (showing two people in an embrace) noted that Liu had used the pseudonym to ensure her work was evaluated on its merits rather than her fame:
Forever Goodbye, created under the pseudonym Yu Ling, is a large acrylic work by actress and painter Lucy Liu (estimate: $25,000-$30,000). Liu, whose work is represented by the Eli Klein Gallery located in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, adopted the alternate handle in order to gain distinction as an artist through her ability rather than rely on her celebrity status.
In 2013 (updated in 2015), WNYC profiled Liu’s art career, in part describing her works and noting that her decision to use her known name was relatively recent:
While becoming a movie star, Liu seriously pursued painting, often bringing paints and canvases to her trailer. Liu’s paintings range from figurative to abstract, but she only recently embraced Chinese imagery in her work. A recent book of her work, “Seventy Two” bears the name Lucy Liu, rather than Yu Ling. “People are going to criticize whether you use your name or not,” she says. “I decided to embrace it fully and just go for it.”
None of the works showcased in the WNYC piece were “lesbian paintings,” and all were abstract with no figures represented of any sexual orientation. A 2013 Huffington Post profile again noted Liu’s decision to use her known name, but did not characterize her work as overly erotic:
“You see her complex, personal canvases — hand-stitched and stuck with funny little found objects, pieces of rubbish she has collected for years, orphaned pebbles and broken bits of butterfly wing,” wrote Hermione Eyre in the The Evening Standard about her 2011 exhibition in London. “And you see that she has poured her heart and soul and years of her life into this art, and you can’t be jaded about it.”
… [Liu] confessed she was anxious about exposing her art in public, perhaps explaining why it took her the best part of 20 years to do so. “It’s time to take the bulletproof vest off,” she said. “I always thought, ‘If people think I’m a bitch, that’s fine for Ally McBeal or for chopping people’s heads off [in Kill Bill] or whatever.’ It’s easy to let people believe you are what you represent.
“But it’s harder to show people who you really are. At first I was afraid of allowing people in who are not close friends and family. But then I realised that people are always making judgements about what I’m wearing or who I’m with, so why not allow them to see something that’s a real part of me?”
Lucy Liu’s official website hosted many images of her years’ worth of work, pieces that made occasional appearances on the actor’s Instagram account. Around the opening of her January 2019 exhibition, she shared an image posing alongside some of her art (which was again largely abstract in nature):
One collection on Liu’s site (“Shunga“) featured some art which was erotic. Mouseover text explained:
The Japanese term shunga refers to a form of erotic art that is customarily depicted in ukiyo-e, or Japanese woodblock, imagery. It was especially popular in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries as an instructional tool for an ideally balanced life. Liu became intrigued by the overt sexual content of shunga. She found it to be a stark contrast to her own cultural upbringing, in which she was treated as a closely guarded secret. Departing from shunga’s origins as precision rendered in a small print medium, Liu created a series of paintings in an exaggerated, large scale, in which the subject is made blatant and undeniable in proportion to its status as a taboo topic during her adolescence. Liu made the paintings by stapling canvas and applied colorful paints in thick, loose, broad strokes-a process that Liu found as liberating as the subject matter of shunga itself.
In November 2019, a popular Facebook post claimed that actor Lucy Liu “is a world renowned artist known for her lesbian paintings under the pseudonym Yu Ling,” which is partly accurate. Liu is a well-regarded and active artist in addition to her film career, and up until 2010 or 2011, she exhibited under the name Liu Yu-Ling to ensure any accolades came regardless of her celebrity. Liu has a small collection of works that are erotic in nature, based on an historic Japanese tradition of art. Most of Liu’s work appeared to be not “erotic” in nature, with many abstract pieces. Although it is fair to say Liu was an acclaimed artist, reducing her decades of work to “lesbian paintings” was inaccurate and sensationalist, and Liu stopped exhibiting under a pseudonym nearly a decade before the post appeared.