by David M. Roth
Hung Liu, the first Chinese artist of her generation to emigrate to the U.S., arrived here like many would-be Americans. A suitcase, 20 dollars, and a scholarship to begin graduate studies at UC San Diego (UCSD) were her sole possessions. That and abundant talent and ambition. The year was 1984. Mao Zedong had died eight years earlier, and millions of Chinese, including Liu, were left wondering what would follow in the wake of an authoritarian regime that controlled every aspect of Chinese life. Liu, who died August 7 of pancreatic cancer at 73, witnessed many of that era’s shattering events firsthand, and after gaining a foothold in the U.S. she began depicting them. What she didn’t observe directly she absorbed from photographic portraits: her family’s, her own, and those she acquired during return visits to China. Working out of an Oakland studio, Liu made paintings from those images with a trademark mix of realist and abstract techniques, channeling the twin poles of her personality, compassion and grit, through her brush and onto canvas. “Summoning ghosts” was how she described the process.
Lui’s husband of 35 years, the critic, curator and art historian Jeff Kelley announced her death on Facebook, prompting an outpouring of more than 500 comments from friends, fellow artists, former students and colleagues who praised her warmth, curiosity, generosity and sharp (often self-deprecating) wit. In addition to Kelley, she is survived by a son, Ling Chen Kelley of Kenilworth, N.J., and a grandson.
Liu’s close friend, Janet Holmgren, president emerita of Mills College, recalled: “Even when we didn’t have as much time together as we would have liked, she created between us, a warmth and a bond and a breathtaking insight into the human condition.” They maintained a decades-long conversation around their shared birth year, 1948, the Year of the Rat. “I’d give her something that was like a token of a rat, said Holmgren, and she would make a whole story out of it. She’d send me pictures of that story, and it would be better than having the trinket itself, seeing the whimsy she came up with in putting them together.”
Liu died three weeks before a career retrospective opened on August 27 at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The show caps a career spanning more than four decades, including a 24-year teaching stint at Mills, where, in 1990, she took over the position formerly held by Jay DeFeo. By the early 2000s, she was well on the way to becoming regarded as one of the world’s preeminent history painters.
“There wasn’t anyone else painting like her,” Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s former senior curator of painting and sculpture, recalled of his first encounter with the artist’s work in the mid-1990s. The paintings “start with photos, but then they go through her mind, her imagination and then her hand,” bringing “out the humanity of the figures she’s depicting. You feel like she’s somehow touching them.”
“She enjoyed taking the viewer’s eye on a joy-ride through a dizzying array of painterly techniques,” said Lawrence Rinder, former director and chief curator of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). “Somehow a single mark could be simultaneously abstract and photographic.”
Liu’s subjects ranged from soldiers and farm laborers to prostitutes and aristocrats. They spanned historical epochs and continents, from urban and rural Chinese life in the 19th and 20th centuries to representations of the Chinese experience in America, from the Gold Rush to the near-present. Self-portraits, in various guises, also figured prominently in her oeuvre, as did paintings of family members. Most recently, she made paintings from Dorothea Lange’s iconic Depression-era photos, linking the plight of the Chinese people to the oppressed of her adopted country, an effort that mirrored her bifurcated attachments and allegiances to both nations.
Hung Liu was born in the northeastern city of Changchun in 1948, a year before the communists seized power. Her father, who served as a captain in the Kuomintang, the nationalist army, was arrested and sent to a forced labor camp when she was three; nearly 40 years passed before she saw him again. By then, he was a broken man, unable to express emotion upon seeing his estranged daughter. Liu and what remained of her family survived the tumult and chaos of the Great Leap Forward, during which millions starved to death, and the Cultural Revolution, during which she, like millions of youths, was sent to a rural re-education camp and forced to perform manual labor. There, she began to transform herself into the artist she would later become, clandestinely taking risks that transcended politics and violated
cultural taboos. Two overlapping exhibitions in 2013, one at Mills College, the other at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), brought those parts of her history into sharp focus. The latter displayed early drawings and postcard-sized paintings (My Secret Freedom), made on the sly from 1972 to 1975 when she was in her 20s. They revealed Liu to be an accomplished painter of landscapes – an act for which she would have been punished had she been caught. (SFMOMA, at Garrels’ urging, acquired 38 works from the series.) During her conscription, Liu also engaged in another banned activity: photography. Images from the Village Photograph series (1968-74) showed her to be a keen observer of rural people and their surroundings, themes that would occupy her for the rest of her life.
A key turning point in Liu’s evolution was her decision, upon emigrating, to study with Alan Kaprow, the father of Happenings, at UC San Diego. Kaprow, a radical thinker, opened Liu’s eyes to the possibilities of process, performance and installation, and how ideas can be conveyed by means other than conventional art materials. At Mills, Liu recreated two large-scale works that debuted years earlier (in San Francisco and Beijing) that demonstrated how she absorbed Kaprow’s influence. Tai Cang — Great Granary was a floor-mounted installation of 34 antique vessels (dous) filled with traditional Chinese
foodstuffs that filled the room with a musky scent. The other was Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain), consisting of four intersecting train tracks topped by a mound of 200,000 fortune cookies – a tribute to the Chinese laborers who built the Transcontinental Railroad and referred to San Francisco by that name. The exhibition also included an epic (40-foot-long) mural called Music of the Great Earth II, a reinterpretation of a piece Liu made when she was a graduate student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. The original, destroyed when the CAFA relocated, was based on an ancient Chinese musical instrument comprised of 65 large bronze bells known as bianzhong. In the reworked version, which employed multi-layered imagery from Buddhist cave paintings, Liu gathered bits of Chinese history and culture and pieced them into a palimpsest, equal parts human circus, bestiary, religious shrine and diary. The effect is of epochs collapsing and interacting across time – a sharp departure from the Socialist Realist style of painting she learned in China.
A residency at Capp Street Project in San Francisco also proved pivotal. There, she created Resident Alien (1988), the first work of hers to receive widespread notice. It depicted her green card with two notable changes: the substitution “Fortune Cookie” for her own name and the alteration of her birth date from 1948 to 1984. In so doing, she co-opted a racial slur and called out the contradiction between the words “resident” and “alien,” reflecting, no doubt, the limbo state she inhabited at the time. The piece never ceased to be relevant; but in the aftermath of the recent spike in anti-Asian violence, it acquired even greater resonance when she recreated it at a monumental scale (27 x 43 feet) and installed it as part of an exhibition at the de Young Museum, on view through March 2022.
Epic works aside, Liu’s portraits, mostly of women, are her most memorable achievements. Integrating figurative and abstract elements, they palpably evoke time, memory and loss with thinned paint that observers have long likened to tears. Dissolving in vertical cascades, they simultaneously obscure and intensify the view of her subjects. To look is to project oneself backward and forward in time, an experience akin to watching the photochemical process of “fixing” an image in a dark room and watching it appear seemingly out of nowhere. Potent examples of this technique are the paintings Liu based on the 19th-century photos of John Thomas. Chinese Profile III (1998), of a woman wearing a gold earring and her hair in a bun, is one such picture. It exhibits what Bill Berkson called the tonal quality of “liquefied ash.” Corn Carrier (1999), a self-portrait, and September 2001 (2001) both integrate gestural abstract marks and images of birds to fantastical, almost visionary effect — prime examples of what Berkson termed, with complimentary intent, “painterly excess.” To this list, I’d also add The Ocean is the Dragon’s World (1995), wherein an opulent, quilted dress signals the wearer’s status in the style of a court painting. At the other end of the social spectrum, several equally voluptuous pictures — Madonna, Mona Lisa and Odalisque (all 1992) – place prostitutes in opulent settings of a sort they probably never inhabited in real life.
Liu, throughout her career, frequently turned her critical gaze inward. Avant-Garde (1993), one of her best-known self-portraits, executed on a shaped canvas, shows the artist as a rifle-toting young soldier, indicating that she, too, was part of the system she abandoned. Other works she aimed directly at the system’s architect, Mao Zedong. Where is Mao, a series of pencil drawings from 1988, shows the former Communist Party chairman alongside other state leaders with his face erased. In 2012, Liu extended the critique by turning communist propaganda posters extolling the joys of agricultural labor into comic parodies simply by reproducing them, unaltered. Liu knew of what she painted: She told me she was once able to hoist 200-pound sacks of corn during her time in a re-education camp –mandatory experience for anyone deemed by the regime to be counter-revolutionary. “Hung gave us a window into the fascinating history of post-revolutionary China, observed Larry Rinder, BAMPFA’s former director and chief curator. She was able to make this remote and tangled web of politics, legend, and history into something that felt strangely personal and accessible.”
In China, where historical amnesia continues to hold sway, commentary of this sort doesn’t always play well. In 2019, without explanation, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture abruptly stopped a Hung Liu exhibition slated to open at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art — even after she agreed to pull nine, presumably objectionable, pieces from the show. It would have been the artist’s first solo museum show in China had the exhibition gone forward. The cancellation, Liu wrote to friends, “triggered many terrible memories. I was forced to recall the first half of my life in China. When the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, it was a war against culture. All non-proletarian values would be wiped out entirely — western ideology, literature, art and music. I remember a huge mountain of books burning for days in front of the Cultural Ministry building.”
“Hung Liu,” Garrels observed, “had a real sense of history from how she’d grown up and how she’d been treated and was so cognizant of the human condition, the fragility of society and culture. She had this vulnerability about her but also this staggering sense of vision and the importance of what she was doing, and that, to my mind, is only going to gain in importance.”
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About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.