Hung Liu Studio
Welcome to the Hung Liu Studio Newsletter, Spring & Summer, 2015.
For its third and final venue, "Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu" was on view at the Palm Springs Art Museum from February to May of this year. Organized by the Oakland Museum of California, Liu's four-decade retrospective never looked better than it did in the spacious galleries of the PSAM. Like the desert itself, the museum has room to breathe. And so do the paintings, which allows their inherent theatricality as objects to play-out before viewers in a present-tense, as if hitting the "pause" button on the historical stream of which Liu's works are ultimately a part.
Newsletter #12 also focuses on two exhibitions in So Cal: "Tom Boy" at the Heather James Gallery, and "Dandelion," at Walter Maciel Gallery in Culver City. Hung's most recent show, "Migratory Seeds," at the Turner Carroll Gallery in Santa Fe offers all new paintings in which images of dandelions are juxtaposed with portraits of Chinese women.
We focus, too, on a classic early painting from the past ("A Question of Hu," 1991).
Finally (after more than several years) we would like to introduce the artist's new and very much improved (and continually improving) website! Check it out ...
Enjoy the newsletter.
Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu
Palm Springs Art Museum,
February 25 - May 24 2015
rganized by the Oakland Museum of California in 2013, SUMMONING GHOSTS: THE ART OF HUNG LIU
is the first comprehensive survey of Liu's work. Recently on exhibit at the Palm Springs Art Museum, its third and final venue of a two-year tour, the show featured epic paintings, as well as photographs, sketch books, and informal painting studies from private and public collections. The exhibition celebrates Liu's career accomplishments and includes work completed in China before the artist arrived in the U.S. It also explores the evolution of Liu's artistic practice, which bears witness to the liminal, migratory space between collective memory and personal history, between photographic anonymity and painterly portraiture, between feminine exoticism and female strength, between an ancient culture and a new world, and between political ideology and individual will.
Heather James Art
Palm Desert, CA,
January 28 - March 21 2015
"Tom Boy" was an exhibition of paintings by Hung Liu that contrasts two radically different representations of 20th century Chinese women: the unisexual, proletarian soldier of Maoist propaganda, and the feminized, high-class prostitute of the late Qing Dynasty and the early Chinese Republic. While Liu is known for paintings of young Chinese prostitutes whose images may be found in staged period photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries (they were advertisements for various big-city brothels), a more recent childhood memory of a well-known propaganda film from 1949, "Daughters of China," rekindled her interest in images of women as soldiers in Mao's revolutionary China, and in China's war with Japan.
With curator Chip Tom
The film "Daughters of China," which Liu remembers seeing as a child, depicts an actual 1938 event in which eight female soldiers fighting the Japanese staged a rear-guard action that allowed the Chinese army to escape. Cut off with their backs against a river, they were coaxed to surrender when the Japanese realized they were women. Rather than capitulate, the eight young soldiers - ranging in age from thirteen to twenty-eight - carried their dying and wounded into the river and drowned. "Arise Ye Wretched of the Earth," (2008) shows the women as they struggle in the river. Indeed, with its drips and washes, the painting seems to be drowning its own subjects.
For her painting series, also named "Daughters of China," Liu captured stills from the film and used them as templates for painting numerous large, poignant canvases. One,
"We Have Been Naught, We Shall Be All" (2007, Denver Art Museum & Logan Collection), a painting whose title is taken from "The Internationale" (the worldwide Communist anthem), is a triptych showing a sequence from the film in which several women carry a comrade river-ward. It recalls the Pietŕ in its limp pathos. Liu's runnels of dripping paint enact her subject: the figure struggling to stand but draining away. The meta subject here is the dissolution of Socialist Realism; the artist bleeds dry its propaganda to reveal a narrative of common courage with women as its heroes.
Born in 1948 and sent to the countryside for four years during the Cultural Revolution, Hung Liu, who emigrated to the United States in 1984, came of age in China during the era of Mao Tse-Dong. As an artist, she represents a perspective based in personal and family experience that takes in the whole of post-revolutionary Chinese history. Her story is well known: her father, an officer in the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party), was sent to a labor camp when Liu was an infant, and she did not see him again until she was forty-six. She traveled alone from northern China to Beijing when she was only twelve; was "re-educated" during the Cultural Revolution; painted furtive landscapes - not propaganda - in the early 1970s; was trained and then taught at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where she became famous for painting an exotic, non-proletarian mural (since destroyed); came to America and studied with Allan Kaprow at the University of California, San Diego; was embraced by American feminists in the context of late-1980s multiculturalism; and has become, as the Wall Street Journal observed in 2013 "The best Chinese painter in America."
Defying her training in Socialist Realism, Liu's innovation as a painter has been to erode her own technical mastery using a combination of oil washes and loose, painted circles (brushstrokes turned back on themselves, like Zen calligraphy). Historical memory (the subject) dissolves into the visual field; images struggle to remain on the surface but, as paint, they cannot resist the gravity of the oil as it slowly drains downward along the cotton weave of the canvas.
Feminism was part of the state dream of Mao's China. The purported equality of women during the Maoist era was founded on the repression of sexual difference. Clothing was rendered asexual, emphasizing military, peasant, or worker status. Since then, images of women in Chinese art and film have been caught between a kind of Maoist butch masculinity, in which women impersonate the dress and actions of male revolutionaries and soldiers (the women are rhetorically neutered, like double eunuchs), and a suffering, melodramatic femininity, in which pretty women bear, apolitically, the burden of a nation's repressed emotions.
The works in "Tom Boy" constitute a kind of pictorial cross-dressing that meet somewhere between conventional stereotypes of men as soldiers and women as prostitutes. Growing up an only child without a father, Liu has often thought of herself as a tomboy, and this hybrid state of gendered identity, rendered here from old photographs and stills from a vintage film, constitute an unstable middle ground where the images of photography, film, memory, and painting meet. What holds these seemingly antithetical images together is the dignity imparted to them as individuals by the painter.
Liu's subjects over the past twenty years, from prostitutes to soldiers, can be understood as reflections of her struggle as an artist to find dignity in the face of every woman she paints. State feminism and exotic femininity must be reconciled, if at all, one painting at a time by an artist - a woman (and also once a soldier) - free to identify with the underlying spirit of both. What Liu has always found beneath the fading surfaces of photographs - and films - are the ghosts that emerge from the prolonged and respectful act of painting them.
Heather James Gallery opening reception dinner
Walter Maciel Gallery, Los Angeles
February 21 - April 11 2015
Little Big Horn, oil on canvas, 72 x 72, 2015
For "Dandelions," her new exhibition at the Walter Maciel Gallery, Liu offers three new bodies of work that drift through the gallery's expanded spaces like seeds in the breeze. The first are large oil paintings showing groups of Chinese working in the fields on communal projects, like building a road or turning the soil of a farm, or carrying water through a village. The second are brightly-colored mixed-media compositions depicting late 19th and early-20th century Chinese prostitutes, often in pairs, in photo studio settings. Thirdly are paintings of dandelions themselves, rendered from close-up photographs taken by the artist at various national parks and historical sites around the Western US, including Mount Rushmore, Devil's Tower, and the Little Bighorn Battlefield, among others.
Mt. Rushmore, oil on canvas, 72 x 72, 2015
Devil's Tower, oil on canvas, 60 x 60, 2015
Allentown, oil on canvas, 80 x 80, 2015
The decision to mix these bodies of work in an exhibition - Liu usually works in many directions at once - emerged from the dandelion images, which are variously tattered by a sudden breeze or left whole, each requiring a different style of painting, but all suggesting the way images, too, can be scattered to the winds of consciousness. In this context, the mixed media and resin paintings of the prostitutes - which are themselves like photographic seeds floating on the updrafts of history - seem like an ironic harvest of the field-work being done by the groups of soldiers and farmers. Taken together, the works in "Dandelion" capture the wide-ranging historical focus of the artist, for whom the big picture and a small detail are often the same thing.
Yellow Earth, oil on canvas, 80 x 96, 2015
Water Carriers, oil on canvas, 80 x 80, 2015
Turner Carroll Gallery, Santa Fe
July 7 - August 8, 2015
These new works (painted specifically for this exhibition) combine close-up images of dandelions with portraits of Chinese women whose likenesses come to us via late-19th or early-20th century photography. While Liu has only this year begun painting dandelions - she has photographed them throughout the US for years - for the first time in this show she juxtaposes them with the images of women. The result is to push the metaphor - the delicate weed, often blown apart, half-gone, or even whole, stands in quiet testament to the lives of the women with which they are paired. Whatever our public poses, who knows the windblown seedlings of our inner lives?
Dandelion #11, oil on canvas (diptych), 60 x 120, 2015
Dandelion #9, oil on canvas (diptych), 48 x 96, 2015
Dandelion #8, oil on canvas (diptych), 48 x 96, 2015
Dandelion #10, oil on canvas (diptych), 48 x 96, 2015
Dandelion #13, oil on canvas (diptych), 48 x 96, 2015
|A Look Back|
A Question of Hu, oil on shaped canvas, 1991
(collection of the artist)
"A Question of Hu," one of Hung Liu's earliest and most private paintings, represents a complex interplay of nostalgia for the artist's homeland and critical awareness of her liminal status as both an émigré from China and an immigrant to America. Titled after a book by the renowned China scholar from Yale, Jonathan Spence, "A Question of Hu" is an arch-shaped canvas - about five feet high - depicting a rural Chinese landscape with a man sitting in the foreground with his back to the viewer, his hair braided in a traditional queue, gazing upon the scene as if looking into the past. What seems at first a single, coherent (if generic) landscape soon opens into a heterogeneous patchwork of miniature landscapes: a river flowing through a barren winter landscape, a close-up cluster of gnarled tree trunks, the sun-soaked wall of a village swimming pool, an aging railroad trestle crossing a river, looming canyon walls of blue and green with an almost ancient Chinese sun in a perennially hazy sky. Like a peasant blanket, these paintings-within-a-painting cover the view with a layer of personal recognition, since the artist originally painted these small oil paintings (and several hundred others, now mostly lost) furtively in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, when any expression of art
sans ideology was grounds for public criticism (which the artist in fact endured). Now collectively titled her "Secret Freedom" paintings, these diminutive one- or two-a-day paintings were small enough to fit under the artist's coat in a little painting box which she kept under her bed during the early 1970s for fear of discovery. By re-painting them into the photo-based landscape of "A Question of Hu," Liu ripens a stereotypical Chinese scene into a field of personal memory. Like the man sitting in the foreground, she is alone looking back through space and time, but the landscapes she now sees she first encountered underfoot and recorded by hand.
The fact that Liu re-painted these pictures upon a new canvas in 1991, while living in California, attests to both her longing for home and her critical awareness of images, whether mediated by hand (painting) or by machine (photography). Liu is copying her earlier (and smaller) Chinese paintings on a contemporary (and larger) American canvas, stitching together a kind of pictorial quilt that complicates and challenges the soft-focus nostalgia of the photograph upon which it is based. As a survivor of the Cultural Revolution, during which she worked as a peasant in the countryside, Liu punctures the Orientalism of the overall scene with miniature pictures she has already painted in China, in the countryside, and which, like her, have survived.
Hanging like shelves from the canvas at about chest height are two wooden boxes on which the artist has painted five-sided scenes of terraced pits being excavated into the earth. On the left, the box depicts, in a Socialist Realist style, village peasants digging a well during the Cultural Revolution; on the right, we look into the massive pit of a copper mine in Utah (from a photo-montage by the late Robert Smithson). Reversing the pictorial logic of surface-to-depth, these three-dimensional images bore into the ground (like eyes), further puncturing, as do her little paintings, the illusion of landscape space. The overall sense of "A Question of Hu," then, is that of an altarpiece; indeed, sitting on the boxes, like ritual offerings or miniature landscapes, are two faux-jade imitations of Bonsai (penzai) plants purchased in San Francisco Chinatown, USA.
Hung Liu Studio, 2014
|With Bernice Steinbaum|
With Walter Maciel
|With Tonya Turner in Santa Fe|
With Lucy Lippard
Jeff with Marina DeBellagente LaPalma
With Lava Thomas
With Yulia Pinkusevich
With John and Vernita Mason
With Gail Severn and Blair Hull
With many friends at the San Jose Museum of Art for a book signing by Hung and Ed Hardy
With Ed Hardy
With Peter Selz
With Donna Macmillan
With Steve Nash
With Steuart Pittman (Studio Assistant) poolside ...
With Rex Arrasmith and Daniell Cornell
With Mara Gladstone, Curator, PSAM
With James McManis (the verdict is in)
|Recent Press for Hung Liu|
Los Angeles Times
Her new paintings are portraits of the most humble of flowers - dandelions - and they are spectacular.
Kansas City Star
In "Summoning Ghosts" at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Chinese-born artist Hung Liu quite literally "summons ghosts," bringing the dead and willfully forgotten into our view through large paintings based on 19th and 20th century photographs taken in China.
Confined in China, Ai Weiwei Directs Alcatraz Exhibit from Afar (Hung Liu interviewed), Mina Kim, September 27, 2014. "Painter Hung Liu is close friends with Ai. Liu grew up during China's Cultural Revolution under Mao Tse-Tung, and like Ai, China's politics and culture infuse her work. She is wary of political art becoming too didactic. 'When you have a strong political agenda, a strong message, you have to be careful if you want to use art form,' the painter says. Liu says she plans to take a serious look at Ai's Alcatraz work, and hopes others will get past his superstar status and do the same. 'Ai Weiwei's super-famous. Some people call him God Ai - Ai shen,' Liu says. 'I think it's little too far.' It's important for people to continue to think critically about Ai's work, Liu says - after all, people tried to make Mao a god, too." - Mina Kim
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
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
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
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
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
Hot Off the Press ...
Chinese Contemporary Art
Thames & Hudson
... Warm Off the Press
Qianshan: Grandfather's Mountain
Interview by Rachelle Reichert
Nancy Hoffman Gallery, 2013
Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu
Essays by Wu Hung, Yiyun Li, Rene De Guzman, Karen Smith, Stephanie Hanor, Bill Berkson
Oakland Museum of California & The University of California Press
Hung Liu Studio