“When I got the United States, I had already lived half my lifetime in China. I did not really think about this; I just got on with my studies and trying to make a success of my painting career…. But I always felt I should be doing more, because of the Cultural Revolution and so on.” Since her arrival in San Francisco in 1984, Hung Liu’s paintings have dealt with the cultural history she uncovered in old photographs. “I use historical photographs, they’re already grainy and really blurry–so it’s like memory, like our sense of perception, out of focus over time.”
Another of her frequently represented themes is the struggle of so many Chinese people who were displaced as a result of disruptions caused by famine and war. “Refugees: Woman and Children” (1999) (80’’x120’’) is from a series titled Refugees. Everyone, from the very young to the very old, is affected. The old woman has become responsible for two babies placed in large woven baskets. Sadly, Hung Liu also recognized the photograph might have depicted a mother desperate to sell her infants, not uncommon in China at the time. Her ability to communicate to the viewer sensitive facial expression is remarkable.
To counteract desperation of the mother, she includes images of hope for the future. In China the crane and sparrows are powerful symbols of happiness. Lotus blossoms grow from the mud and muck at the bottom of ponds, but the flower rises above to bring great beauty and happiness into the world. It is a symbol of resurrection. The images of the Buddha bring a message of hope and a blessing to guide the family to a better life. Hung Liu’s emotional connection to the people, and her painting of the events, is sensitive and strong. Viewers can easily connect to the people and their circumstances.
“Arise Ye Wretched of the Earth” (2007) (80”x80”) was the cover painting for the exhibition catalog Daughters of China. Hung Liu titled the exhibition after a Chinese propaganda film she had seen in 1948. “Arise Ye Wretched of the Earth” is a photograph of eight paramilitary women who threw themselves into the river rather than be taken prisoner during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.
Among the paintings in Daughters of China, several were titled “Tis the Final Conflict” (2007) (66”x66”). The paintings feature the incredibly expressive faces of individual Chinese warrior women, in groups, alone, and some with their fallen comrades. They are a compelling reminder of the terrors of war.
Hung Liu witnessed the Wenchuan earthquake in 1976 that killed 240,000 people. She painted “Richter Scale” (2009) (80”x160’’) in response to the 8.0 earthquake on May 12, 2008 in Sichuan. The quake killed 90,000 people, including the children attending an elementary school, largely as a result of the soddy construction of the building. She was in China in May 2008 for two solo exhibitions of her work in Beijing and to paint landscapes when the earthquake occurred.
Building materials and bits and pieces of destroyed items are piled high in this thirteen-foot-long painting. A young girl and her little sister sit amidst the devastation. White birds, like angels, fly over the debris but can do nothing. At the upper right an animal’s eye, orange and black, looks out from the pile of wood.
Hung Liu’s exhibition titled Apsaras (2009) was installed in 2009 at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City. “Richter Scale” and other paintings of victims of the earthquake were included. Many of the portraits were simply titled Apsaras and a color. Many are of children with bandaged faces. “Apsaras – White” (2009) presents a poignant image of an old woman’s response to what she has seen. The Apsaras, the swirling female figure in blue, tries to bring what comfort she can to the grieving woman. The Apsaras is a beautiful heavenly maiden found in both Buddhism and Hinduism. The Apsaras sings and dances, a much-needed presence bringing calm and hope.
Hung Liu and her husband Jeff Kelley visited Qianshan in the summer of 2006. The province encompasses almost one thousand mountain peaks and forests where Buddhist and Taoist monasteries continue to function. Liu Weihua, Hung Liu’s beloved grandfather, was the foremost Chinese authority on the temples, stone steles engraved with carvings, caves, and carved stairways that populate the area. He photographed them for years; his book Qianshan was published posthumously in 2002. Hung Liu’s exhibition Quinshan: Grandfather’s Mountain (2013) included 14 paintings based on his photographs. “Grandfather’s Rock” (2013) (48’’x60’’) is one of her paintings. Grandfather Liu, a large stone stele from which water flows into a stone basin, and a cluster of yellow chrysanthemums, and the trees in the foreground, all carefully painted, occupy the center of the composition. The distant trees with cloudlike foliage dissolve into the sky. Hung Liu uses two styles of painting, realistic and abstract, to focus viewers’ attention on the transition from earth to sky.
The cluster of yellow chrysanthemums, a symbolic element in the painting, represents longevity, wealth, and tranquility. The flower is native to China and important for 3000 years. The plant grows in the early spring, but does not bloom until fall. It is a popular flower in Chinese gardens, and in paintings, pottery, and poetry. It is treasured for its medical qualities.
“The Botanist” (2013) (96’’x54’’) is a portrait of Hung Liu’s grandfather. He was a major influence on her life. Liu Weihua focused his life-long study of Qianshan ecology as well as the religious shrines. Hung Liu commented, “I remember a lot of things: his face, his demeanor, his body language. He had hands that were very soft and big. So those kinds of things were very important for me as part of these paintings.”
“Silver River” (2013) is a mural Hung Liu painted on a long wall in the San Jose Museum of Art for her exhibit Questions for the Sky. The brochure accompanying the exhibition states that it is “A meditation on the fleeting nature of life and death, the work itself is ephemeral by design: it will disappear forever when the exhibition ends on September 29, 2013.” Climbing ladders and scaffolds, Hung Liu painted the mural in just one week.
Hung Liu painted “Sliver River” (2013) (detail) using traditional black paint in the style of historical Chinese scrolls. Her personal symbols, circles, lotus flowers, and an Asparas, are painted in color. A video of the work in progress was accompanied by three other Hung Liu videos titled Black Rain, Candle, and Between Earth and Sky. The videos contained photographs taken by Hung Liu each day with her iPhone the year after her mother died.
The series of articles on Hung Liu will conclude in the next issue of the Spy.
In my work, my experience as a Chinese immigrant to the United States is quite important, and I also discovered some very important historical photographs, both in the U.S. and in China. We were never allowed to see such photographs when I was in China.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.