by Renny Pritikin
Thirty-three years ago, Hung Liu (b. 1948) became noted in the Bay Area for a painting that demonstrated her terrific rendering skill, a wicked sense of self-deprecatory humor, and a commitment to publicly discussing the nature of the immigrant experience. The piece, Resident Alien (1988), was an enlarged duplicate of the “green card” issued to her by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, complete with self-portrait, thumb print and her name changed to Fortune Cookie. Liu created it after landing here four years earlier from the People’s Republic of China, where she was born, raised and trained in the Socialist Realist manner. Today she is widely regarded as one of this country’s most accomplished painters, and in recognition of that status, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC will open a career retrospective of her work August 27.
To commemorate that event — and a moment when issues surrounding immigration dominate the news — the de Young Museum is showing a small but pithy selection of Liu’s work in an exhibition called Hung Liu: Golden Gate. In it, a remake of Resident Alien fills an enormous section of the imposing Wilsey Court along with 11 other large works that face each other on opposing walls. Together, they form a rebus-like installation challenging visitors to discern Liu’s past and present intentions.
Significantly, the wall on which Resident Alien appears is the same one previously occupied by Gerhard Richter’s Strontium (2005), a monumentally scaled work which was on view for several years. For this exhibition, Liu reconceived her original 60 x 90-inch canvas as a 77-panel painting with only minor alterations. The gigantic work dominates the entryway into the museum as a dramatic confrontation and provocation. To see a younger version of the artist memorialized in a work measuring 27 x 43 feet is both chilling and amusing.
On a nearby wall, shaped canvases depict a pair of dead robins and three life-sized children, the latter inspired by Dorothea Lange’s photographs of poor farm workers from the 1930s. We see a Black boy entangled in the ropes of a plow staring directly at us; a dark-skinned youth carrying what looks like a mattress, but is really a cotton picker’s sack; and finally, an even younger blond child dragging her own sack like the blanket she should be toting in a world where children aren’t forced to pick cotton. While the backstories behind these works aren’t explained, we do know that when the artist arrived in the United States she identified strongly with immigrants, the working poor and people of color from having lived through the Communist revolution, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution during which she performed mandatory agricultural labor.
Another wall displays an image of a Chinese Junk; a painting called Corn Carrier 2021, based on a photograph of the artist hauling a sack of grain; and four abstracted, deer-shaped forms. The corn worker ties Liu’s history in China with the American workers pictured on the opposite wall, and the junk, it turns out, is a reference to a fleet of 40 shrimp boats that plied San Francisco Bay at the turn of the last century. For her 2010 exhibition Drawing from Life and Death, the artist used photos of dead animals as the basis for an examination of mortality, extending her longstanding practice of “summoning ghosts” from photographs. At the de Young, placing the birds and deer among images of historical laborers implies further connections between mortality, human exploitation and ecological concerns.
Liu uses oil on canvas, supplemented with acrylic and ink, sometimes backed with plywood and aluminum in these works, most of which were made this year. Her palette is subdued and dark. Three discs, each about a foot wide, are mounted among the paintings to link the two walls. The discs – painted red, orange and gold — could refer to any number of things: the red of Communism or the traditional color of good fortune; the orange of fruit waiting to be harvested; and gold, reflecting the expectation of wealth among Chinese immigrants who called California Golden Mountain.
It’s been eight years since Liu’s retrospective exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California. Given the wealth of paintings that will soon be on view at the National Portrait Gallery, Liu’s Bay Area followers may feel shortchanged by the modest scale of this exhibition, until a large show with current work appears in a local museum.
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Hung Liu: Golden Gate @ de Young Museum through March 13, 2022.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Prior to that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his new book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020.