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Hung Liu
(Changchun, China, 1948 – 2021, Oakland, California)

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Using a striking combination of traditional Eastern imagery and contemporary Western style, Chinese-born Hung Liu strives to reclaim her country’s history and its culture in her paintings. In her vast, mural-like creations, Liu deconstructs the past and reassembles it in order to give new life and a fresh identity to those who have gone before. Through the appropriation of historical photographs, Liu paints what she refers to as “pastiches of style and clashes of culture.”1

Born in Changchun, China, in 1948, Liu’s childhood was marked by hardship. Six months after her birth, Liu’s father, an officer in the Chinese Nationalist Army, was imprisoned by the Communist Party and her mother was forced to divorce him. By the time she was 18, the Cultural Revolution had begun. In an attempt to break down non-proletarian traditions and encourage uniformity among its citizens, the Chinese government sent “intellectuals” like Liu to the countryside to be “re-educated” by the working class. For four years, Liu worked alongside peasants in the fields. It was here that she first began to exhibit a notable interest in photography, a medium that continues to inform her art today.

In 1972, as the Cultural Revolution came to an end, schools reopened in China. Because she had labored in the fields for several years, Liu was considered a member of the working class and was permitted to resume her studies. She enrolled in the “Revolutionary entertainment” department at Beijing Teacher’s College. After several years of creating government-directed art and teaching at an experimental grade school, Liu took the nationwide civil service examination and applied to the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. Here she studied mural painting in an attempt to avoid political propaganda. In 1981, she submitted an application to the department of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, and was accepted into the graduate studies program. Almost four years later, after several failed attempts at securing a Chinese passport, she immigrated to the United States in October 1984.

In China, Liu had been trained in the socialist realism mode. Borrowed from Soviet Union, this propagandistic style, also known as Maoist Revolutionary realism, emphasized the state over the individual; treated artists as workers for the people; and forbade the use of historical imagery, especially photographs, in an artist’s work. In the United States, however, Liu was able to freely incorporate subjects from photographic images into her art. Fascinated by the photographs of “old China” found in Western books, Liu sensed the untold stories of China’s history. In 1991, the artist returned to Beijing on the first of many trips in search of photographs hidden in family albums, public archives, and rare books that had survived the Cultural Revolution. Inspired by these historical images, Liu began to create paintings that “evoke the feeling of nostalgia and sense of melancholy about the history of her native land, the women in China, her personal history and the stories of the imperial family.”2

Since many photographs were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Liu has often turned to sources printed by foreign tourists. In A Tale of Two Women (1991), she investigates the duality of two women as they were depicted by a 19th-century foreign photographer. True to the original image, the women are caught enjoying a moment of intimacy as a maid adjusts the hair of her well-to-do mistress. The status of the women is conveyed through their positioning and their physical appearance. The seated mistress is identified through her ornate gown and her tiny, bound feet—a symbol of sexual desirability—while the maid stands, wearing drab attire.

The scene is characterized by a glaring sense of voyeurism. Before the two women stands a vanity adorned with a small, upright mirror and a wooden jewelry box; the seated woman clutches a second mirror in her fist. The mirrors suggest the feeling of spectacle that pervades the image. Though seemingly alone, the women are objects of the photographer’s intrusive gaze. By entering the scene in order to capture it, the photographer manipulates the distance that generally separates the spectator from the subject. Like the original photograph, Liu’s painting plays with the notion of distance. She inserts a three-dimensional shelf and a contemporary jewelry box, similar to the one sitting on the vanity, into the right side of the canvas, thereby penetrating the pictorial space with a physical object. By doing so she pushes the painted image into the background, building a metaphor for passing time through the creation of physical distance. The shelf also functions as an offering, an homage to the anonymous women whose identities and histories have been lost apart from the photographs that preserve their images.

A similar exploration of history and identity surfaces in Liu’s work from 1998 entitled Chinese Profile II. Drawn from John Thomson’s quasi-anthropological book Through China with a Camera, the painting Chinese Profile II explores the “types,” or more accurately the stereotypes, recorded by Thomson on his trek through the country in 1868–72. Photographed in profile, the woman is robbed of her individual identity and reduced to a category. Though Liu preserves the “objective” format of Thomson’s photograph, her painting does not separate the woman from her selfhood in the same manner. Liu’s work establishes personality and individuality where none existed before. Through her use of heavy drips and expressionistic washes, the artist imbues the canvas with intense emotion, lending her subject grace and dignity. The splashes and drips on the painting’s surface simultaneously seem to obscure the profile, however. This technique creates an interesting dichotomy—Liu builds an identity for her subject, which is then erased by the very substance in which it is rendered. She seems to suggest that a memory, even a culture’s past, cannot be re-created or preserved in its original form, but will exist only through interpretation and transformation. —L.W.

1. Heather Sealy Lineberry, “Living in Layers: Hung Liu’s New Paintings,” Hung Liu: Strange Fruit (Tempe: Arizona State University, 2002), 7.
2. Yuling Huang, “The Advantages of Fragmented Identity,” Review (Kansas City), January 1999, 16.

(SJMA Selections publication, 2004)

Hung Liu was born in Changchun, China (1948). She received her BFA in Education from Beijing Teacher’s College (1975), an MFA equivalent in mural painting from the Central Academy of Art in Beijing, China (1981), and an MFA in Visual Arts, University of California, San Diego, CA (1986). Her work has been exhibited both in the U.S. and internationally. Her work is included in the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the National Museum of American Art. This would be the third work by the artist in SJMA’s permanent collection. (SJMA Collections Committee, 2005)

Hung Liu lives in Oakland, CA.

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