by David M. Roth
When Hung Liu landed in San Francisco with $20 and a suitcase, she was the first Chinese artist of her generation to immigrate to the US. The year was 1984, and Hung, 36, had already survived more social and political tumult than most people see in a lifetime: the Communist takeover in 1949, the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). When she died at 73, three weeks before her retrospective opened at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 2021, she was universally recognized as America’s preeminent artist of Chinese descent.
Hung Liu: Capp Street Project, 1988 re-creates, in truncated form, Hung Liu: Resident Alien, the exhibition that launched her career. She made it during a summer residency at Capp Street Project, one of a handful of experimental art incubators in San Francisco. Having trained in Socialist Realism at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, an institution untouched by modernist thought, Hung might have seemed an unlikely candidate for the award had she not spent her youth rebelling in secret — making unauthorized paintings and photos — and creating public murals depicting China’s ancient past: one of the few areas where ideological conformity wasn’t enforced. UC San Diego, a bastion of avant-garde thinking led by Allan Kaprow, the founder of “happenings” and a proponent of an anything-goes approach to art-making, accelerated her development. There, she absorbed Kaprow’s teachings and those of faculty members (David and Eleanor Antin, Helen and Newton Harrison, Faith Ringgold) and fellow students (Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Hal Fischer and her future husband, the critic and contemporary Chinese art scholar, Jeff Kelley.) When Kelley, after graduating, was hired to create the Center for Research in Contemporary Art at the University of Texas at Arlington in 1986, Hung followed and was constantly exposed to what Kelley, in a forthcoming exhibition catalog, called “experimental and socially engaged art of every stripe.”
Not all of it stuck. The one part of the era’s ethos Hung rejected was the injunction against painting, which, up to that point, 1988, no one at Capp Street dared violate. To the dismay of the institution’s director, Hung created several large canvases, which she supplemented with other large-scale works painted and calligraphically drawn on walls and pillars, interlaced with bits of Chinatown kitsch and small piles of fortune cookies arrayed across one floor of the Monadnock Building on Market Street. Another part of the Capp Street show, a three-foot-high wall-painted “scroll” dealing with Chinese literature, spilled over into
the Kuo Building in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square Park, where it remains today. So, while the paintings may have irked those who believed the future lay with Conceptual Art, performance and installation, the exhibition garnered praise for portraying Chinese-American history critically, something no artist, Chinese or American, had ever done. That, in turn, established a local beachhead for the flood of identity-focused art we see so much of today.
Reconstituted at Rena Bransten Gallery at a vastly smaller scale, the exhibition retains a focus similar to the original; its namesake and conceptual linchpin, Resident Alien, shows up here as an editioned print derived from the original 60 x 90-inch self-portrait, based on Hung’s government-issued green card. But rather than face viewers head-on as convention would dictate, Hung painted herself in three-quarter view, and in a clever bit of numerical juggling, she put her birth year at 1984: a reversal of the last two digits of her actual birth year, which as it happened, also corresponded to the year she immigrated. The real coup, however, was naming herself “Cookie, Fortune.” With those two words, Hung summarized her struggle as an artist, her status as an objectified female and the history of San Francisco, which Chinese still call jiù jin shan or Old Gold Mountain. In so doing, she laid the template for what would soon become a lifelong quest: understanding Chinese and American history and how they intertwined.
Part of that story involved racist scapegoating, the subject of Chinese Trade Monopoly, a diptych based on an early 20th-century newspaper caricature. One side has a multi-armed Chinese man cast as a bloated robber baron. His hands wield a variety of tools and a money bag, the intent of which was to stoke fears of immigrants stealing American jobs. The opposing panel shows a group of unemployed whites being arrested for loitering. An inset shows a Chinese man hauling buckets suspended from a shoulder pole, a far more accurate description of the position of Chinese workers than the one pushed by the “yellow journalism” of that period.
Branches, the eeriest work on view, consists of three large-scale (60 x 90-inch) charcoal-on-canvas portraits of a family named Wong, made from photos taken in China and America between the late 19th century and the 1970s. Some of its members Hung rendered clearly, while others appear almost apparitional, indicating births and deaths and the passage of time. It marks the likely start of Hung’s practice of painting from vintage photos. She called it “summoning ghosts,” and over the next four decades, she used it to portray courtesans, laborers, orphans, prisoners, royalty, refugees, soldiers, and even Mao Zedong, whom she pictured faceless (with other heads of state) shortly after the Capp Street residency.
Two other groundbreaking works, Tang Ren Jie (Tang Peoples’ Street) and Shi Ba Miao (18 Strokes), also merit close attention. The first, a diptych, depicts a Chinese prostitute and a customer on one side and an elegantly attired Tang-era woman on the other. A street sign at the top unites the two. It appears to indicate a three-block stretch of Sacramento Street running through Chinatown, but the numbers actually refer to the Tang Dynasty (618-906), a golden era whose glories Hung claimed for the “People.” Shi Ba Miao (18 Strokes), the other major work, shows 18 human figures, each rendered with a different classical brushstroke. They frame a drawing at the center derived from a 1973 Robert Smithson proposal to “reclaim” Bingham Copper Mine in Utah. Hung drew it using the same techniques she used for the figures, the loose lines draining downward to form a scene of postindustrial waste. A cube painted with identical lines rests on the floor before the drawing, a tongue-in-cheek attempt to link Chinese classicism with Cubism and Land Art.
After the Capp Street show, Hung’s career took flight, fueled in part by a breakthrough that would become her signature: thin washes of paint dripped vertically over figures, a gesture long likened to weeping. In 1988, that development was still a few years off, but even then, strong hints of what would follow were already in evidence. The rest, as they say, is history.
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Hung Liu: “Capp Street Project, 1988” @ Rena Bransten Gallery through November 18, 2023.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.