Hung Liu, born in China and living and working in Oakland, California, is an international artist, known for her figurative paintings, which are derived from late- 19th and early- 20th century historical Chinese photographs. Her subjects have been peasants, laborers, prisoners, refugees, Korean ‘comfort women’, soldiers, and Chinese prostitutes.
Liu grew up under the regime of Chairman Mao and was sent to the countryside to perform manual labor during the Cultural Revolution. She studied mural painting at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, where she graduated in 1981. In 1984, she immigrated to the United States to attend U.C. San Diego where she received her M.F.A. in Visual Arts in 1986. Liu remained in America and taught at Mills College until 2012.
Historic photographs from the late-19th and early-20th century China have been her primary inspiration throughout her career. Even when she was a student in China, she would secretly use photography, forbidden in the formal art training of Beijing, as an aid in her paintings.
Liu’s portrait work, based on these Chinese photographs, are large oil paintings showing groups of Chinese working in the fields or working on communal projects. Her paintings are washed in veils of dripping linseed oil that according to her, “both preserves and destroys the image.” This painterly, dripping effect has her work hovering between realism and abstraction as she explores representations of women. Liu’s technique is a kind of “weeping” realism that embodies memory and the passage of time as she brings faded photographic images to life. Past history turns into the present as old photographs are turned into new paintings. Her washes and drips dissolve documentary images into personal and cultural narratives.
A slightly different source of inspiration for her work is based on very old pictures of Chinese prostitutes. These are turned into brightly-colored mixed-media compositions of individual girls, sometimes pictured in pairs. Her most striking work is found in her series “Strange Fruit.” The title of this series comes from a song by Billie Holliday, who describes the lynched bodies of African Americans as “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Hung’s portraits of the girls and young women were based on photographs of Korean ‘comfort women’, the thousands of girls and young women, who were forced to sexually service Japanese soldiers during World War II. She departs from the original photographs and edits out the Japanese soldiers to memorialize these young women as individuals.
Her recent art also portrays American subjects, the wandering families from the time of the American Dust Bowl. She shows 1930’s Americans making their way across the United States to California. Her style of painting here is one of topographical realism in which paint congeals around a web of colored lines.
Liu has also worked with installations. Her “On Gold Mountain was exhibited at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco in 1994. It commemorates the sacrifice of thousands of Chinese laborers, who perished while working on America’s transcontinental railroad. A mixed-media work, it consists of a conical mountain of fortune cookies, an American invention; shaped canvases, paintings of Chinese junks; four sundials; satellite photographs of different continents; and seventy feet of railroad track, which led in different directions across the gallery. On one wall there is an image of a temple made from hundreds of individually folded bits of paper, known as temple money. This money represents for Liu, “the dual meaning of ritual blessings for departing craft and homages to those who have lost their lives on the perilous journey.”
Liu has received two painting fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and a Joan Mitchell Fellowship. She was awarded a 160 foot glass window public art commission at the Oakland International Airport in 2005 followed by a large public commission painting at the San Francisco International Airport in 2008. She is the recipient of many other awards, including the SGC International 2011 Award for Lifetime Achievement in Printmaking.
Liu has had numerous solo shows with different galleries and has had traveling retrospectives at the Laguna Art Museum and the Palm Springs Art Museum. She will have a major retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 2021.
Her work is included in major museum collections such as Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, San Francisco MoMA, Walker Art Center, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Dallas Museum of Art, De young Museum, Oakland Museum of California, Asian Art Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art.