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Summer/Fall 2013
Hung Liu Studio Newsletter

Questions from the Sky, Portraits of a Chinese Self, Grandfather's Mountain, Press, Publications



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Welcome to the Hung Liu Studio Newsletter, Summer/Fall 2013. 


Hung Liu opened two museum exhibitions in the spring of 2013: "Offerings," at the Mills College Art Museum, and a major career retrospective, "Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu," at the Oakland Museum of California. 


With this edition of the Newsletter, we would like to note a third, consisting of an installation of new works, "Questions from the Sky," at the San Jose Museum of Art. Having opened in June, the well-received exhibition ran through the end of September, and included a performance of painting on the museum wall. In addition, Hung had an exhibition of small self-portraits representing different stages of her life, "Portraits of a Chinese Self," at the Turner-Carroll Gallery in Santa Fe, which took place in July. Finally, a show of new paintings and a few drawings, "Qian Shan: Grandfather's Mountain," opened at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York on September 12th, and ran through October 26th. Based on photographs taken by her grandfather in the 1920s & 30s of the monks and monasteries of the mountainous Qina Shan area of northern China, Hung's new paintings are an homage to the most important male figure in her life. 


Enjoy the newsletter!



Questions from the Sky: New Work by Hung Liu

San Jose Museum of Art

June 6 - September 29 2013


Heaven's framework spans the vertical and the horizontal;

When the vital yang breath dissipates, death will ensue.

Why did the great bird call?

How did it lose its body?


(from "Heavenly Questions," attributed to Ch'Ł YŁan (340? - 278 BCE)



Remarkable and lush paintings based on historical photographs of China have made Hung Liu one of the most beloved artists represented in SJMA's collection-and is America's most important Chinese working today. Born in Changchun in 1948, a year before the founding of the People's Republic of China, Liu experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand, spending four years of proletarian re-education in the countryside. When she came to the United States in 1984 to attend the University of California, San Diego, she was among the first mainland Chinese to study abroad and pursue an art career.  For over thirty years, she has paid witness in her paintings to the tribulations of everyday people, past and present, and their hidden stories of social injustice. She grapples with issues of self, society, and politics - as well as the challenge of reconciling disparate cultures.


In Questions from the Sky: New Work by Hung Liu, a very personal and poignant installation, she contemplates the cycles of life and death and the span of memory. The title of the exhibition makes reference to an ancient Chinese poem that questions the origins of the universe and the history of civilization. Like its author, Ch'Ł YŁan, Liu asks unanswerable questions-not to solicit an answer so much as to revel in the process of meditation, reflection, and introspection. Composed of several elegant video works and a sweeping wall mural, "Questions from the Sky" seems suspended between "the vertical and the horizontal," as if rising, falling, and flowing forward at the same time. For the video pieces, Liu took countless pictures over a number of years with her iPhone: cloud forms dissipate, deer float in space, birds fall to earth, candle flames quickly expire, and Buddha's Hands (a gnarled kind of citrus fruit) cling to themselves, as if afraid to let go. Liu's expansive, horizontal wall mural is based on a hand scroll by Chinese artist Ma Yuan (circa 1160 -1225) of the Southern Song Dynasty depicting a rolling surge of river waves - initially tranquil, they swell into a storm.


The simple but poetic images in "Questions from the Sky" reflect Liu's contemplative yet restless state of mind as her mother reached old age and eventually passed away (in 2010). Fundamental - even mundane - in nature, they prompt the viewer to consider what moments in life deserve to be memorialized, how we remember those whose breath has dissipated - who have lost their bodies - and how daily encounters with the spiritual remind us of their presence. The installation is a meditation on the universal circle of birth, life, and death and on nature's mortality and immortality.   



Painting "Silver River," a time-lapse view ...





Exhibition Views ...




















A Painting Performance: Cantos

San Jose Museum of Art

June 20, 2013















Portraits of a Chinese Self

Turner Carroll Gallery, Santa Fe
July 5 - August 18, 2013
During a February residency at PV Studio in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Hung painted a series of eight self-portraits taken from photographs dating to the age of three and ending at age thirty-two, before coming to the US. Depicting moments from the artists childhood, and also from the time she spent living as a peasant in a village during the Cultural Revolution, Hung's works were exhibited as a sequence in Santa Fe.





Portraits of a Chinese Self, I - VIII

oil on canvas

36 x 36 inches




Qian Shan: Grandfather's Mountain
Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York
 September 12 - October 26, 2013

Qianshan: Grandfather's Mountain


Hung Liu's grandfather, Liu Weihua - who helped raise and educate her - was China's most important scholar on the subject of "Qianshan," a cluster of mountain peaks (nearly one thousand) in Northern China in which Taoist and Buddhist monasteries have co-existed for centuries. From his first trip there in 1919 as a student, he fell in love with the majesty of the place: with it's interwoven peaks and forests, its stairways leading to secluded temples and monastic dwellings, its upright stone steles etched with memorial and historical texts, its stone bridges leading to lonely caves, its narrow trails carved in rock ascending sacred peaks where penitents seek redemption, and he fell in love especially with its ascetic detachment from the modern world.


Throughout his adult life, and despite the facts that he was a school teacher and had a family (a wife, three girls and a boy) in Changchun (moving in the late 1950s to Beijing), Liu Weihua visited Qianshan at every opportunity, studying its temples, shrines, monasteries, and the written signs and couplets that adorned them. He collected words of wisdom left by past literati, including poetry, journals, steles, and other writings. When new discoveries were brought to his attention, he visited Qianshan and recorded them personally.


Often, he hired a photographer to document his journeys, shooting over 380 photographs of local sights, preserving Qianshan's history and scenery, and recording the monastic lives of its priests and nuns. He also had himself photographed in Qianshan, almost as if he were a monk wandering contemplatively among the monasteries.


Now, in honor of her grandfather's scholarly work, Hung Liu has completed a new body of paintings based on photographs taken during his many research trips to Qianshan. The exhibition at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York is called "Qianshan: Grandfather's Mountain." Liu is well known for basing her large, often drippy oil paintings on Chinese historical photographs, often of young prostitutes or war refugees, and her subjects are usually anonymous, lost to history. With her new paintings, "Qianshan: Grandfather's Mountain," Liu works from photographs that her grandfather commissioned, either of the landscape, religious sites or shrines, the monks and nuns who lived there, or, very often, of himself posing like a scholar tourist in his personal heaven-on-earth. As a painter, Liu is trying to bring his photographs into the 21st century as contemporary oil paintings.


The Wall Street Journal recently called Hung Liu "the greatest Chinese painter in the U.S.," and one of the reasons why is because of the depth of her connection with the culture and history of China. That connection runs not only through her own life, but through the lives and experiences of her mother and grandfather (who was born during the Qing Dynasty). As an artist, Liu has always tried to turn old photographs into new paintings, adding a certain "mineral" urgency to a decaying "chemical" surface. With "Qianshan: Grandfather's Mountain," she makes clear the depth of her family's memory of the old, literati traditions of China with paintings that reawaken her grandfather's dream of being what the Chinese called "Jushi" (lay Buddhist), or a monk with a family.


In 2013, Liu had a career retrospective at the Oakland Museum of California called "Summoning Ghosts: The Art and Life of Hung Liu." Throughout her career, the grainy anonymity of her historical subjects, whose fleeting images were captured in old photographs, were the ghosts she set free in her paintings. There were many ghosts in Hung Liu's life: Mao Zedong, whose omnipresent visage made private life impossible; Liu's father, a Captain in the Nationalist army who was taken away by the Communists in 1948 (and did not see his daughter again until 1994); her mother, who was both mother and father, and who died in 2011; and her grandfather, who - although he died in 1962 - remained the most inspiring figure in her life.


Liu Weihua's book on Qianshan was finally published in 2002 in China, 40 years after his death, 70 some years after he started his research.


Grandfather's Rock, 2013
oil on canvas
48 x 60 inches

Grandfather Liu and his Qian Shan Friends, 2013
oil on canvas
80 x 96 inches

The Sewer, 2013
oil on canvas
72 x 72 inches

Stairway to Heaven, 2013
oil on canvas
48 x 48 inches

The Thinker, 2013
oil on canvas
96 x 48 inches

Stone Drum (Tapping), 2013
oil on canvas
96 x 48 inches

Qian Shan Scholar I, 2013 
watercolor on paper 
20 x 14 1/8 inches

Qian Shan Scholar II, 2013 
watercolor on paper
20 x 14 1/8 inches

Qian Shan Scholar III, 2013 
watercolor on paper
20 x 14 1/8 inches



With Eric Fischl
With Dr. Christine Wheeler

With Joanne Moser (of the Smithsonian) and Nancy Hoffman (back to viewer)


With some mostly Chinese Friends

With Nancy Hoffman and Milton Esterow

With Diane and Bruce Velik in Santa Fe






Recent Press for Hung Liu




SF Chronicle

Many contemporary painters struggle to get history into their work without looking pretentious or ideologically motivated. But big events of the late 20th century weighed so heavily on the life of Oakland painter Hung Liu that she might have found it difficult to keep history out of her work. - Kenneth Baker


Square Cylinder


It's easy to marvel at how Liu's mix of abstraction and realism draw us into the past.  Yet virtuosity alone doesn't explain the emotional pull of her painting.  So I'll venture a theory: Since Liu works from photos, her painting process is analogous to the photochemical act of "fixing" an image in the darkroom from which pictures seemingly emerge out of nowhere. Liu performs a kind of psychic translation of that act, supplementing it with lived experience and an extraordinary level of empathy.  Result: she can paint from photos and literally "summon ghosts." - David Roth


KQED Radio

Hung Liu is good at summoning ghosts -- from memory and history. She's an Oakland artist born in China, and "Summoning Ghosts" is the title of a new retrospective of her work at the Oakland Museum of California. - Cy Musiker




Hung Liu is widely considered one of the most important Chinese artists working in America today. - Interview by Rachelle Reichert


Art Practical


The spare aesthetic of the exhibition currently on view at the Mills College Art Museum belies the fullness of the Bay Area artist and educator Hung Liu's major concern: history. - Ellen Tani


Art Practical

In February 1948, the artist Hung Liu was born in Changchun, in the far north of China. Only months later, the city was the site of a major siege by the People's Liberation Army. - Matthew Harrison Tedford


Contra Costa Times


She's internationally known for her dramatic paintings, which often layer historical images with scenes from her own life or those of everyday people who didn't make it into the history books. - Angela Hill


San Francisco Chronicle/SFgate


In the early 1970s, Hung Liu, who was being trained in the strict Social Realist style required of Chinese artists at the time, surreptitiously made small landscape paintings that contained no images of Chairman Mao, heroic soldiers or happy peasants. She hid them under her bed to dry. - Jesse Hamlin



Warm off the Press

Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu
Essays by Wu Hung, Yiyun Li, Rene De Guzman, Karen Smith, Stephanie Hanor, Bill Berkson
216 pages
Oakland Museum of California & The University of California Press  

Hung Liu Studio

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Hung Liu Studio