Hung Liu, a Sino-American artist whose work merged past and present, East and West, and earned her recognition and censorship in her native country, died on August 7th at her home in Oakland, California. She was 73 years old.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, Nancy Hoffman Gallery, who represents Ms. Liu in New York, said in a statement.
Her death occurred less than three weeks before the planned opening of a career study entitled “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. She was the first Asian-American woman to have a solo exhibition there.
“Five thousand year old culture on my back; The world of the late 20th century on my face, ”is how Ms. Liu described her life-changing arrival from China in 1984 when she was 36 years old and already an accomplished painter. Her goal in America, she once said, was “to find a way to allow me to practice as a Chinese artist outside of a Chinese culture.”
As she quickly learned, one problem with being a Chinese artist outside of China was dealing with and counteracting cultural expectations. Even its name automatically evoked associations with time-honored but stereotypical “oriental” art forms such as calligraphy and brush and ink painting in many western viewers. Furthermore, at this point in time, prior to the rise of the globalist art wave in the 1990s, the art world in Europe and the United States was barely aware that contemporary Chinese art even existed.
Her work involved photo-based images that combined the political with the personal. Many of these pictures showed characters forgotten by history: workers, immigrants, prisoners, prostitutes. In some cases, she depicted her wreathed with flowers. There were also portraits of her Chinese family, including one of her father, taken from a snapshot she herself took while visiting a labor camp.
Her painting “Resident Alien” from 1988, which she has reproduced most often, is a mural-sized representation of her green card. It includes a realistically rendered self-portrait, but the identifying name on the card has been changed to “Cookie, Fortune” and the year of birth from 1948 to 1984, the year of her immigration.
Hung Liu was born on February 17, 1948 in Changchun, northeast China, during the Revolutionary Period. When she was a child, her father, a teacher, was imprisoned for his involvement in anti-communist politics. During the Cultural Revolution, she was even sent to the countryside by the government to work on “reeducation” farms. There she secretly photographed and sketched everyday life in the village.
She also traveled through China, visiting historical sites and using a pocket-sized paint box to make copies of murals, among other things, by Buddhist monks from the 5th province.
In the 1970s, she studied at Beijing Teachers College and the Central Academy of Fine Arts. In 1981 she graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where she specialized and taught in wall painting.
Restless with the officially sanctioned socialist realism style and subjects, she repeatedly applied for a passport from the Chinese government that allowed travel to the United States. When permission finally came In 1984 she flew to California and enrolled in the MFA program at the University of California at San Diego.
One of her teachers there was the conceptual artist Allan Kaprow, who had long been familiar with Asian art and viewed art and culture as ductile categories. His presence ensured a welcoming environment for their goals.
After receiving a residency at the Capp Street Project, an art space and artist residence in San Francisco in 1988, Ms. Liu settled permanently in the Bay Area. In 1990 she began teaching at Mills College in Oakland. In 2014 she retired.
Her first exhibition in the United States in 1985 consisted of drawings of the Dunhuang murals she brought with her, but the work she began producing in California was very different.
Its political content became more emphatic in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. In a mixed media installation from this year, “Trauma”, the cut-out figure of a woman in traditional Chinese robes hovers with tied feet on the wall above the body of a fallen schoolgirl. On the wall between them hangs the black silhouette of Mao Zedong’s face. The floor below is splattered with blood-red paint.
In 1994 Ms. Liu produced an installation for the MH de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco to commemorate the Chinese immigrants who perished while building the western section of the transcontinental railroad. In the 2000s she began to work intensively with non-Chinese sources and was based on documentary images of the Great Depression by the American photographer Dorothea Lange. The scenes of poverty that Lange captured in the rural Dust Bowl reminded her of those she had experienced and captured in drawings when she lived among the poor rural people of China.
Most of Ms. Liu’s paintings were painted in a brush version of the realistic style in which she was trained. Skeptical of any claim to truthfulness in the representation of history, however, she routinely covered the surface of her pictures with linseed oil detergents, which allowed transparent liquid to trickle down the canvas. This formal effect has led to different interpretations: blurred memories, tears, reality as illusion.
Ms. Liu has had several institutional exhibitions in the United States, including the 2013 retrospective, Summoning the Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu, organized by the Oakland Museum of California and touring nationwide. The exhibition “Hung Liu: Golden Gate” is currently on view at the de Young Museum. The National Portrait Gallery exhibit, which runs through May 30, 2022, is their first major east coast presentation.
In 2008, when China was loosening up culturally, Ms. Liu received a retrospective at Beijing Xin Gallery. But a poll scheduled for 2019 for the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing was abruptly canceled by the Chinese government, even after complying with its request to remove pieces considered inflammatory in the face of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Ms. Liu leaves behind her husband, critic and curator Jeff Kelley; one son, Lingchen Kelley; and a grandson.
In addition to her paintings, Ms. Liu produced some permanent public works including “Going Away, Coming Home,” a 160-foot mural that was installed at Oakland International Airport. It consists entirely of glass windows painted with images from a Chinese scroll painting from the 12th century: dozens of ethereal flying white cranes, traditional Chinese symbols of good luck.
The picture is one of the most blatantly poetic created by an artist who wrote in “Ghosts / Seventy Portraits,” a collection of her work from 2020: “When I moved to the West exactly half a life ago, I carried my spirits with me. The spirits that I carry are a burden, but also a blessing. “