“Graphic design allots the opportunity to defy convention”: Theresa Liu on her investigative practice
After becoming enchanted by the works of LA’s art greats, Theresa felt there was a gap between their depictions and her day-to-day reality. Here, she discusses her theory-based practice on providing second realities through graphic design.
- Jyni Ong
- 13 February 2020
Theresa Liu’s peers and colleagues have often described her work as “very LA.” Not in the Hollywood glamour sense however, but in its conceptual patterns which repeatedly hark back to the graphic designer’s experiences growing up on the West coast. Whether it’s cultural, society, geographic or familial, Theresa’s work is pointedly introspective of her upbringing. From a macro perspective, she continuously asks herself things like: “Who am I? How does LA’s environment affect and alter my perception of the outer world? And why do I, at times, reject my own ethnicity and culture?”
Regularly returning to these ponderings, the first generation Chinese-American sees her work as more sociocultural than anything else. “Graphic design just became the meaning,” she tells us of her practice. Before studying graphic design formally at university, Theresa’s first introduction to the medium was through Geocites, a site for web archival projects which sadly closed down in July 2009. Xanga and Myspace quickly followed, absorbing the budding designer’s enthusiasm for layout design, while providing the foundations for a basic understanding of HTML and CSS.
But it wasn’t until later on in Theresa’s education that she was first exposed to the art giants who have shaped, and continue to shape, Los Angeles’ external visual landscape today. “Without a direct relationship to a topic,” she explains, “assumptions start to emerge and disseminate.” In this vein, she was “immediately enchanted” by the artists whose works featured her home city extensively. Ed Ruscha, Allen Ruppersberg, Ed Fella, John Baldessari, Norman Klein and Mike Davis were just a small handful of creatives who captured Theresa’s attention with their evocative depictions of LA. But despite her enjoyment of their works, she felt a gap in her day-to-day realities of the city than in these portraits.
“It encouraged me to express and share a second reality,” says the designer. “I want my process to reflect the spirit of the city – the fragmentation, the sprawl, the automobile culture, the immense amounts of concrete that surrounded me.” The aesthetic style followed suit, “hence,” Theresa explains, “the comments about my work appearing to be ‘very LA’, which I would translate as ‘matter-of-fact with tinges of enamour and grit’.” In her work, she tries to represent themes as authentically as possible. Finding a balance between “mindful satire and pure offence”, Theresa’s portfolio both defies convention and respects boundaries.
She tends to obsess over such challenges and questions to propel her work into new and unexpected spaces. In A Very Crispy Exhibition for example, Theresa critiques the plethora of souvenir shops in Chinatown. In this project, she questions the authenticity of how souvenir shops represent the country they are selling, in this case China. She plays on the exotification of foreign countries and comments on the frequent romanticisation of Chinese typography. Such issues continue to arise in Theresa’s wider work, in Cue the Sun: Los Angeles 1990-1999 for example, where she documents her research in a beautifully designed publication, revisiting her memories from the 90s LA riots through news media coverage.
Delving into the ethics of voyeurism, in other words “who is gazing at who?” as well as the idea of “other”, in other work, Theresa investigates a number of national identities through the symbols embedded in their national coats of arms and city emblems. Titled Newhere Lands by Such & Such, Theresa, in turn, designed her own souvenirs “implying the inescapable nature of pluralism.” Drawing on the idea that souvenirs are usually small, handheld objects in the form of keychains, magnets, snow globes and so on, she wanted to play on this dual meaning of national identity imprinted on a tiny piece of materialism. “I hope my work can spark a conversation, recall a memory or offer an alternative to possible outdated perspectives,” Theresa ends finally ends with, reiterating, “graphic design allots the opportunity to defy convention.”
Theresa Liu: Newhere Lands
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.