“Drawing from Life and Death”, Hung Liu’s latest cycle of paintings feels, at first, like a departure for the 61-year-old chronicler of Chinese history. But is it? People are absent, and so is her usual narrative structure. But like the elegiac, rivulet-stained oil paintings of 19th century and pre-Revolutionary women that, for decades, she has been painting from period photos, these pictures carry a heavy load: the weight of mortality.
Liu grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and witnessed all kinds of suffering; but she has never, as far as I know, taken on mortality directly. She does so here using animals as surrogates in pictures that are painted with an expressionistic handling. They are tempered by dripping lines, calligraphic marks and abstract surface gestures that instead of grounding the pictures in space they erase it altogether. Thus, her animals are akin to specimens. They float on the surface, apparently dead, but not quite inanimate.
Among the animals depicted are deer that were freshly killed by cars near the artist’s home in the Oakland hills, a robin that fell out of the sky into her studio parking lot and a human corpse viewed at a local medical facility. Liu photographed them and made paintings from the photographs; but apart from her bravura wet-on-wet technique, what distinguishes these pictures is the forensic method she used to document the evidence: circling around the fallen animals from above and snapping pictures. Thus, the different views of a dead fawn that we see in Qi Bu (Seven Steps to Heaven), a sextet of 44” x 66” paintings mounted in two rows, are something of a forensic experience, too, as we circle the animal exactly as the artist did, seeking clues from its splayed legs and the rocks nearby.
The pictures are executed in oil on raw linen in thick strokes and in rich, dark colors that emphasize vitality. So even though we know the animals are dead, the vivacity of the paint tells us quite convincingly that these deer could just as easily spring to life as lay there comatose. From the Sky, her large-scale (72” x 72”) paintings of a robin, operate in a similar fashion. The bird’s claws, frozen in rigor mortis, say one thing, but its bright orange breast, framed by palpably real charcoal-gray flight feathers, says another. (This is more than just a pictorial device: If you’ve ever watched a bird, drunk on toxic berries, knock itself unconscious by crashing repeatedly into a window and then magically take to the sky, you understand how this can actually happen.)
For Liu the series probably has more to do with historical fact than with imaginary resurrections. In 1958, the Chinese government decreed that all the nation’s sparrows should die because they were competing with the people for grain. “Kill the sparrows to save your crops,” Mao ordered. The Chinese did that by destroying nests and by banging pots and pans which kept the birds aloft, killing them from exhaustion. “The ecological consequences…were disastrous; it turned out that sparrows had been the people’s allies all along, eating mostly insects,” wrote Jeff Kelly in his catalog essay for the 2008 show of contemporary Chinese art, Half-Life of a Dream at SF MOMA. By the time Mao countermanded the order it was too late. “Insects,” Kelly recounts, “ate the grain and famine set in. The state dream became a nightmare in which sparrows fell from the sky.”
In Liu’s cosmology, life is a fluid exchange, a cycle of birth and decay signified by her repeated use of the circular enso – a Zen calligraphic mark that symbolizes an “endless cycling, encompassing everything and nothing,” according to Nick Stone who wrote those words in his preface to Deer Boy (Magnolia Editions), an artist’s book that Liu published last year with a poem by Michael McClure. Another Liu trademark, weeping vertical stains, is an ever-present trope in this series, underscoring the tragedy of so much Chinese history.
Kelly maintains that the dissolution of the collective fever-dream that was Mao’s regime threw China into a state of confusion from which it is still recovering; and it is within this hypnagogic realm, between the 50-year snooze of state-dictated consciousness and whatever comes next, that China now operates. Beyond its obvious allusions to mortality, Drawing from Life and Death is, ultimately, a metaphor for this limbo condition. It’s something that Liu, an immigrant with close ties to China, understands intuitively.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Learn more about Hung Liu.