by Lily Siegel
Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) represents three significant firsts: the first major East Coast presentation of the artist’s work, the first museum exhibition focused on her portraits and the first time the NPG has presented a solo exhibition of an Asian-American woman. Given the NPG’s mission “to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development and culture,” what does it mean at this juncture to show Liu’s images of Chinese people who have been historically marginalized and become acutely vulnerable during the recent spate of anti-Asian violence? How, exactly, have they shaped American history, development and culture? Such questions loom over Portraits of Promised Lands.
The exhibition, organized thematically by Dorothy Moss, NPG’s curator of painting and sculpture, begins with family and ends with paintings based on images by the Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange. While section titles — “Intro,” “Family,” “Gender,” “Refugees,” and “After Lange” – imply a linear path, the exhibition, in many ways, feels circular. Liu, who died earlier this year, lived half of her life in China, primarily under Maoist rule, and half in the United States, where she died, at age 73, from pancreatic cancer just weeks before this show opened.
From the beginning, photography played an integral role in the artist’s life. This exhibition and the accompanying catalog do an exceptional job of focusing on a few meaningful details to discuss her specific relationship to photography and portraiture. During her youth, Liu’s mother gathered the family for an annual visit to a portrait studio. The artist remembers these outings and the importance her mother placed on documenting the family over time. When the Cultural Revolution arrived, Liu and her mother feared being branded counterrevolutionary and were forced to destroy many of these photographs. “Peasants,” the artist explains in the exhibition catalog, “could not afford food; how could they have photographs?… You couldn’t keep anything personal. It was dangerous. That is why I am so interested in old photographs. They are rare….” A selection of those images is on view alongside a few photographs of villagers the artist discretely took while undergoing compulsory reeducation, along with early drawings made in Beijing when she entered art school.
There, Liu’s received her first formal artistic training under the auspices of the “revolutionary entertainment” department of the Beijing Teachers College. With Socialist Realism operating as the controlling ideology and Russian propaganda serving as the ideal, artists had no choice but to idealize the lives of the proletariat. Understanding the power of the portrait, the danger of documentation, and the privilege it conveyed, Liu made sure she portrayed her subjects as strong and dignified: stand-ins for the masses. They were not happy workers, but they were real people worth memorializing – as much or perhaps even more so than the ubiquitous Chairman Mao.
Once stateside, she departed from that regimen. From 1988 to 2008, Liu worked on a series of drawings called Where is Mao? in which she depicted key moments from the chairman’s tenure, including the meeting with Richard Nixon that opened relations with the US and Mao’s famous 1966 swim across the Yangtze River, made to dispel rumors of his failing health. In all these straightforwardly captioned pictures, Mao’s visage is erased. It’s one of the rare instances where Liu allowed her wicked sense of humor to seep into her art.
The same year she started the Where is Mao? series, she made a billboard-sized painting of her green card titled Resident Alien (1988), the work that first brought her widespread attention. It’s the earliest piece included in the exhibition, and though it aligns with themes of defiance and resilience seen elsewhere, it is unique in that Liu renders her government-issued mug shot photo-realistically. The name on the card reads “Cookie, Fortune” with a birthdate of 1984, the year Liu emigrated to the US to attend graduate school at UC San Diego. The irony of naming herself Fortune Cookie cuts deeper than a quick giggle and wink. Though fortune cookies are ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants across the US, they are not a Chinese or even a Chinese-American invention. Though their exact origin is disputed, they are
generally thought to be Japanese-American. “I was trying to invent a way of allowing myself to practice as a Chinese artist outside of Chinese culture,” Liu said of the piece. “Perhaps the displaced meanings of that practice—reframed within this culture—are meaningful because they are displaced.” While Fortune Cookie is a sexually objectifying term flung at Asian and Asian American women, Liu isn’t reclaiming it. She’s using it to confer dignity on marginalized people and especially women who face additional humiliations — much like the misattributed fortune cookie.
Liu, out of necessity, was raised by strong women because her father was detained by the Communists when she was a newborn. In adolescence, she attended an elite girl’s school in Beijing. She was always attracted to portraying women, girls, mothers, workers, migrants, prostitutes as resolute, even in hardship. Of Goddess of Love, Goddess of Liberty (1989), on view in the gallery called “Gender,” she said, “I just want to startle the audience and convey the pain our mothers felt.” Along with Madonna (1992), that painting acknowledges the complexity of who gets represented and how. The pictures recast women as heroic figures from the Western canon —Liberty and Madonna, respectively. Here, Liberty appears seated; her bare feet, disfigured from being bound, are thrust into the viewer’s face. She looks
subtly to the side and away from the object Liu has selected to represent the Goddess of Love—a painted vase depicting two people making love. It is as if the woman were looking beyond the role assigned to her by history. Other meaningful objects in the painting include an erased blackboard, signalling the erasure of her story, and a broom, used to sweep away the blood spilled during the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Notably, the Chinese character for broom is nearly identical to the one representing wife.)
In the early 1990s, Liu began using drips in her paintings. She saw history as a verb, constantly changing, always fluid. The drippiest and the grandest are three paintings in the “Refugee” gallery which celebrate the sacrifices made by female refugees. Here, wall text recounts an oft-told piece of the artist’s family history:
“While fleeing the fighting around Changchun with countless other refugees—with no food and under fire—our family passed by a river. Sitting alone on that riverbank was a baby. The baby’s mother had set it down and stepped into the river’s rushing water. Nobody picked up the baby. Everyone just kept walking. I asked my mother if she would ever have drowned herself and abandoned me by the river. She looked at me and said, “I don’t know.”
When painting from photos, Liu edits her source material heavily—she removes figures and backgrounds and adds details and emphasis to the subjects she wants to illuminate. Evidence appears in the three paintings that comprise the “Refugee” segment depicting women and children. They are not happy workers, obedient comfort women, or poor, desperate souls. They are individuals empowered and seen. Each carries a telling title: Refugee: Woman and Children (2000), Strange Fruit: Comfort Women (2001) and Refugee: Opera (2001). At 114 inches tall, the latter celebrates the mother in all that she gives, even when it seems she has nothing left. She stands, shirt open, offering her breast to an infant. Portraits like this represent Liu’s vision of the universal grand opera: “mythic figures on the grander scale of history painting.”
The final gallery, and sadly, the last body of work Liu produced, deals with the photographs of Dorothea Lange. Beginning in 2015, Liu immersed herself in the photographer’s archives, housed at Oakland Museum of California, and the affinity between the two artists is evident. Lange was the great documenter of migrants, mothers, children, workers during the Great Depression; Liu did the same for the most momentous periods in Chinese history, from the advent of photography to the present. While working in the archive, Liu visited the locations where Lange made her pictures and was captivated by the quality of the light in California’s Central Valley. At first, these paintings seem like a stylistic shift. The figures appear almost pixilated, an effect emphasized by surging veins of color that give them form. Liu, however, took her bodily experience and transposed it onto Lange’s images, just as she did with the scores of old photographs from China. The result is electrifying. The drips remain, animated by a vitality that brings these historical figures into the present.
“The story of America . . . is a story of desperation, of sadness, of uncertainty, of leaving your home,” Liu is quoted saying in the exhibition catalog. “It is also a story of courage, of sacrifice, of determination, and—more than anything—of hope.”
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“Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands” @ the National Portrait Gallery through May 30, 2022.
About the author:
Lily Siegel is Executive Director of Hamiltonian Artists, a professional development fellowship for working artists in Washington, DC. Before joining Hamiltonian, she was Executive Director and Curator at Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art (formerly Greater Reston Arts Center), Reston, Virginia. She has held curatorial positions at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.