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Hung Liu @ Mills College Art Museum

Installation view: Tai Cang — Great Granary (foreground) and Old Gold Mountain (background)

 

If memory is the subject and subtext of much art, why do so few artists address the one sensory mechanism most capable of unlocking it?  The practical answer is that olfactory sensations can’t be readily contained or captured.  Yet smell, as everyone knows, is a potent memory trigger. 

Hung Liu makes full use of it.  For the installation portion of her 40-year retrospective (Hung Liu: Offerings) that runs through March 17 at Mills College Art Museum and continues with Summoning Ghosts: the Art of Hung Liu at the Oakland Museum of California starting March 16, she displayed 34 antique vessels (dous) filled with traditional Chinese foodstuffs: dried mushrooms, grains and legumes. Titled Tai Cang — Great Granary, it filled the room with a musky scent redolent of green tea that, for those susceptible to such inducements, must have worked like a memory stimulant – at least while the contents were fresh.  It is one of two installations sharing floor space in this elegant, coffered-ceiling space. The other consists of four intersecting train tracks topped by a mound of 200,000 fortune cookies called Old Gold Mountain  – a tribute to the Chinese laborers who built the Transcontinental Railroad and who referred to San Francisco by that name.

Old Gold Mountain 

Displayed alongside paintings, drawings and sculptures, they add up to a tour-de-force prelude to the upcoming OMCA show which promises to bring into even sharper focus the qualities that have made Liu one of the Bay Area’s most admired artists — and one of the world’s most effective history painters.  Prominent among those qualities are her skills as a realist, her riveting site-specific installations, and the abstract-painting techniques she applies to figuration and landscape.

At the Mills opening, the aromas wafted into the foyer, bypassing a movable text-wall that acts as a sort of curtain, separating the entryway from the main space.  To those versed in feng shui, which says never block the chi, or energy, of a room by hindering a good view, the obstruction probably felt like a violation.  To me it felt like a brilliant gambit.
 
Walk past that wall and the exhibition unfolds cinematically, like a seamless tracking shot. Follow it to the back gallery and you’ll find, stretched across 40 feet of wall space, an epic mural called Music of the Great Earth II, a reinterpretation of a work Liu originally created as a graduate project for the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.  The original, destroyed when the CAFA relocated, was based on an ancient Chinese musical instrument consisting of 65 large bronze bells known as bianzhong.  In the reworked version, which employs multi-layered imagery from ancient Buddhist cave paintings, the bells are difficult to locate.  Liu, in what may be her most ambitious work to date, has gathered pieces of Chinese history and culture into a palimpsest that is equal parts human circus, bestiary, religious shrine and diary.  The effect is of epochs collapsed and interacting across time. Though the imagery is densely packed certain things stand out:  Liu’s trademark drips, her “bleeding” zero-like circles, and her boxed self-portraits, as a young People’s Liberation Army soldier.  
 
Music of the Great Earth Variation VI
 
For Liu, art making is about scrutinizing the past. Before emigrating to the U.S. in 1984 to study with “Happenings” creator Allan Kaprow at U.C. San Diego, she witnessed some of the most wrenching events in modern history: Mao Tse-tung’s rise to power, The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution through which she and her family lived, suffered and survived.  Since 1991 she’s taught art at Mills and won an ever-increasing amount of national and international acclaim, all from her base in the U.S.  Yet as her portraits of laborers, soldiers, peasants, prostitutes and everyday people attest, China, past and present, dominates her art.   What differentiates Liu from her more doctrinaire Chinese cohorts is her ability to apply abstract painting techniques, such as staining and dripping, to traditional subjects.  Old Gold Mountain, first shown in 1994 at the de Young Memorial Museum, illustrates the distance she’s traveled since her youth, when Socialist Realism was the only officially sanctioned mode of expression.  Its “occupy” stance nods affirmatively to Kaprow, while its layered metaphors stand in opposition to the ideologically driven messaging style of communist propaganda.
 
Detail of the mural: Music of the Great Earth 

Significantly, the confections displayed in this installation contain no fortunes.  Brittle and empty, they mirror the broken dreams of Chinese who came to California seeking riches that flowed mostly to others. The golden cookie pile also references an old Manchurian custom: the burial mound.  It’s an apt allusion to the hard labor, racial discrimination and  ghetto living conditions that were then and still are the reality of California’s Chinatowns.  

Nearby, two large-scale paintings of boats the Chinese call “junks” also reflect back on that experience.  Executed on shaped canvases that are conjoined like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, these majestic stain paintings show Liu marshaling elements of abstract expressionist and minimalist techniques to her own ends.  There’s a similar conjoining of old and new in the eight works on paper that surround the big mural, Music of the Great Earth II.   Stationed in the back room, each of these “variations” is increasingly complex.  They range from an unadorned near-calligraphic sketch of animals, people and godhead figures to a radiant gold-and-turquoise drawing (Music of the Great Earth Variation VI) in which recognizable forms are nearly overwhelmed by weeping vertical drips.
 
Ultimately, whenever we encounter Hung Liu, we’re looking at bifurcated views of human history, art history and an artist balancing between cultures.  As Liu stated in 2007: “I am not really Chinese anymore, but I am not one hundred percent American.  I cannot get close to my own history, but I cannot get rid of it.”
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
Hung Liu: Offerings at Mills College Art Museum through March 17, 2013.
 
Summoning Ghosts: the Art of Hung Liu @ Oakland Museum of California, March 16 to June 30, 2013.
 
Hung Liu is represented in San Francisco by the Rena Bransten Gallery.
 

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