Hung Liu’s life story unfolded like the myths she loved as a child, stories of women dragged out of their homes into the battle of history by circumstances. In hopes of escaping the rising communist forces that were conquering China’s rural areas, her family fled to Beijing, only to be relegated to a remote area; She later moved to the United States and lived in various cities along the California coast, where she began to study and make art. By the time her name became known, she had perfected her particular style of painted portraits, depicting people who had been left behind in China and beyond.
“The story of America as a destination for the homeless and starving of the world is not just a myth,” Liu once said. “It is a story of despair, sadness, insecurity, leaving home. It is also a story of determination and – above all – hope. “
Using bright colors and her signature linseed oil, Liu painted from photographs to create large-format portraits that exude confidence. She often dripped her paint in such a way that the canvas appeared to be crying, in what she referred to as “weeping realism,” a nod to her earliest socialist realism-style art education in China.
“The main line of their work is their investment in humanity, their belief in an epic story we are all part of,” said Dorothy Moss, who organized Liu’s first career retrospective, now at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC . By changing the scale of an image or adding textures, she believed she could add dignity to her subjects. “
Liu died last month, just days before the opening of her retrospective, which runs through May 30, 2022. The exhibition brings together paintings and photographs from the past four decades and illustrates how Liu was inspired by the people that society had exploited, marginalized and rejected – orphans, migrants, mothers, prostitutes – to tell the stories that define their practice. Below is a look at how Liu came up with her emotionally moving, historically charged images.
Hung Liu was an infant in 1948 when her parents fled the intervening communist forces in Changchun, China. But as soon as the communist victory was completed across China, the family returned to Changchun. Liu’s father, Xia Peng, was immediately sent to a labor camp for serving in the opposing Kuomintang Army. Liu would not see him again for almost 50 years.
Years later, Liu’s mother told her a story from that time, when they passed a child abandoned by the river; the child’s mother jumped into the river and drowned. The image of the woman who was willingly swallowed by the water and her life culminating in a wave haunted Liu.
Starting in 1949, Liu’s mother, Liu Zongguang, began taking the family on annual trips to a photography studio. This later became a dangerous activity as just possession of studio photos was considered a criminal offense. When soldiers broke into homes, they burned anything they considered evidence of anti-proletarian sentiment, including photo albums. In anticipation of this, her mother burned in advance pictures of the artist‘s father and grandfather, who were a scholar, although some small, cherished ones survived.
“You couldn’t keep anything in person,” Liu later recalled, explaining the influence of historical photography on her practice. “That’s why I’m so interested in old photographs. They are rare. It’s not like today. “
From childhood on, Liu was sensitive to the relationship between memory and image creation, creating portraits of everyone who visited her mother’s home. During her middle and high school years, she attended art clubs and the Beijing Children’s Palace of Culture. In 1961, when she was 13, Liu entered an elite girls’ boarding school, but her education came to a traumatic standstill in the spring of 1966 when the Cultural Revolution began. Two years later, in 1968, Liu, now 20, was one of 17 million urban youth who were resettled in rural villages for agricultural re-education.
For four years she threshed rice and tied corn, lived on meager rations, and hastily created postcard-sized landscapes and portraits of the other villagers. Using soft graphite lines, she wrote honest depictions of the shapes and personalities of those portrayed, emphasizing her inattentive looks, thin bodies and sagging shoulders, all of which were missing from the propaganda posters circulating at the time. She created around 500 of these paintings, most of which she burned or hid under her mattress.
In 1972 Liu was allowed to attend college in Beijing, where she studied until 1975. After graduating, she attended graduate school at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Socialist Realism provided the guiding principles in both schools and there was very little room for variation. Still, Liu found a way to maintain some level of personal expression by studying ancient cave drawings and Buddhist iconography. She often put two symbols of hope, a lotus flower and a crane, in her pictures.
But Liu remained determined to leave China and was allowed to immigrate to the United States after a four-year trial. She left behind her mother and young son who would eventually follow her to California.
Second training in California
When she arrived in 1984, Liu had no idea what to think of her new teachers and classmates at the University of California at San Diego, whose teachings and arts reflected the apolitics of post-war American art. Many returned the feeling as they tried to figure out how a strongly political framework could be viewed as contemporary art.
The breakthrough came during a course with Allan Kaprow, the famous performance artist who staged happenings in New York in the 1960s. As she said, Kaprow took his students to a dumpster and instructed them to make something valuable out of its contents. Liu stared blankly, but soon understood what the performative possibilities of art were, with a haunting effect.
In 1988, a year before hundreds were killed and wounded in Tiananmen Square, Liu began two of her best-known works: Where is mao? and Resident foreigner. In the first, she depicts the dictator in widespread images: meeting Richard Nixon, swimming in the Yangtze, commendation from a member of the Red Guard. But in a twist she left out the Führer’s face from these paintings, and the background of the paintings contains only the most sparse touchstones, such as the communist sickle or flags. Here Mao Zedong is literally wiped out in what she called an “anti-memorial”.
In Resident foreigner, Liu has recreated her own green card as a painting with some ironic changes: her name is now “Fortune Cookie” and she has inverted the last two digits of her year of birth – from 1948 to 1984 – both referring to the year she was allowed to live settled in the United States and received the title of George Orwell’s dystopian novel. The painting, recreated on a monumental scale at the Museum de Young in San Francisco earlier this year, speaks of the tension between her identity as a Chinese immigrant and her pursuit of American citizenship, and conveys her feeling that the two countries’ bureaucracy systems are not very different.
Personal story on a grand scale
Liu was a prolific painter who created several large-format works from photographs in quick succession. She explored the history of portraiture as political propaganda and how art can be used by totalitarian regimes to manipulate memory. Two works, both created in 1993, tell how she tried to create art that could elevate personal history on a grand scale: Avant-garde, a self-portrait as a young person carrying a gun at the end of the Cultural Revolution, and Miss Y, a study of a young girl cleaning herself in a mirror. Around this time, Liu returned to China, where she found a pool of tattered historical black and white photographs. Over the next decade, she experimented with color and texture while translating the photographs into painting.
“When I tried to use colors to map and decode the old black and white photos,” Liu once said, “it was as if I could feel the person’s heartbeat and pulse, I felt the connection and understanding with him / her. She.”
On her trip to China, Liu was finally able to track down her father, who lived on an elderly inmate labor farm near Nanjing, where he had worked repeatedly since 1948 Eyes while they talked, and later explained that the prison had taught him had to bury his feelings out of reach.
Based on this experience, Liu created Fathers day, a standout painting based on a 1994 photo of the two. Photography, she once said, could free her subjects from unjust narratives or limit her memory forever. Here she lifts her father out of his fetters, if only in spirit.
Later in her career, Liu focused on women and children. Strange fruit: comfort women (2001) pays homage to the tens of thousands of Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. In one of her most extensive series, “Mission Girls”, tired young Chinese orphans crowd onto the canvases. The background is rendered loosely, with visible brushstrokes and thick drops of paint. (Works from the series were due to be exhibited at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2019, but after a lengthy application process, a Chinese censorship agency rejected the application.)
Liu’s last work is based on Dorothea Lange’s photographs of mothers and their children that were taken for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. Migrant mother: mealtime (2016), taken from Lange’s famous portrait of a tired farm worker and her children, and Liu translated it with a palette of muddy grays and browns sprinkled with light streaks of color. The American photographer shared Liu’s limitless empathy for people who “had no name, no biography, no history,” said Liu. “I feel that they are kind of lost souls, ghost spirits. My painting is a memorial for them. “