Treasures from the Vault: Hung Liu

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

In Memory of Hung Liu (1948-2021) 

A photograph of the artist, smiling and holding a mug, one arm around the shoulder of a former FWMoA Director.
A candid photo of Hung Liu hugging then FWMoA Director Emily Kass in 1996. FWMoA Archival Image, courtesy of FWMoA.

We are always saddened to learn about the death of an artist; their creative spirit has been stilled, and we now have a finite body of work to enjoy. It is even more difficult when we have a relationship with them. In 1996, FWMoA organized a small exhibition of works by Hung Liu, who passed away earlier this month. Invited as a visiting artist, Liu reflected on her experiences and art in a lecture held in conjunction with another exhibition we had on display, New Art in China, Post-1989. Liu’s warmth and good humor made her visit all the more memorable. 

A gallery shot of Hung Liu's work at FMWoA in 1996.
Hung Liu exhibition, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, April 16 – May 19, 1996. FMWoA Archival Image, courtesy of FMWoA.

Born in 1948 in Changchun, China one year before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, her father was a captain in Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army and was imprisoned for being a dissident. Liu was raised by her mother in Beijing, and was finally reunited with her father in 1994. 

During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1972), universities and colleges closed and Chairman Mao Zedong instituted an ideological reeducation program across the country to revive cultural values. Like other young people living in urban centers, Liu worked for four years in a rural labor camp harvesting corn and rice and working amongst peasants. 

After getting her degree in education at Beijing Teachers College, Liu studied mural painting at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing in 1981. She was trained in China’s sanctioned socialist realist style of painting that promoted the goals of communism. In 1984, Liu immigrated to the U.S. where she received her M.F.A from the University of California, San Diego where she met and/or studied with Allan Kaprow, Moira Roth, Eleanor and David Antin, Helen Mayer, and Newton Harrison. Unlike her previous schooling, this environment encouraged her to express her individual vision. 

A painting shows the head and shoulders of a concubine from the Qing Dynasty. She makes direct eye contact with the viewer, wearing makeup and an elaborate headdress. Beneath the work hangs a bamboo, ornamental bird cage.
Hung Liu, American, 1948-2021. Chase the Rabbit. Oil on canvas, wood, and bamboo birdcage, 1996. Gift of the Hamilton Circle, 1997.16.a&b. Photo courtesy of FWMoA. 

Throughout the Cultural Revolution, many photographs were burned to erase the past and pave the way for rebirth. The artist’s family purged their own as well, particularly those of her father. While on a trip back to China in 1991, Liu recovered a group of pre-revolution historical photographs. These photos represented a lost history and became a springboard for her paintings. From about 1995-98, Liu painted a series of works focusing on the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial court in China and explored attitudes towards Chinese women in society.   

In Chase the Rabbit (1996), left, Liu’s subject is a concubine to the Qing Dynasty royal court. She added images of butterflies and layered a hunter preparing to shoot a rabbit in a style recalling traditional Chinese art. Since 1989, Liu began complementing her paintings with architectural and other three-dimensional decorative elements; in Chase the Rabbit, she hung a birdcage off the painting. Unlike the fleeing rabbit, the bird cage alludes to the concubine’s entrapment due to her status and gender.  

Liu applied linseed oil that caused the paint to drip and run down like tears. These passages dissolve both the figure and the notion that there is a fixed nature to its photographic source and, in turn, to history. This signature painting technique is an eloquent metaphor for both the erosion and the persistence of history and memory through time. 

An important photographic resource for Liu was Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). While working for the Farm Security Administration, Lange created some of the most iconic images that have helped shape our collective memory of the agrarian and human crisis during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Lange also documented the experiences of marginalized groups, including Black tenant farmers, Mexican and Filipino migrant workers, and Japanese American WWII internees.   

The archive of Lange’s photographs and papers at the Oakland Museum of California were key in Liu’s paintings and prints on the theme of migration and immigrants. Both artists were skilled at creating reflections on the human condition that were politically charged and full of compassion.   

A print of two children hanging out atop a truck on a mattress. Inside the wagon can be glimpsed personal possessions. Layered on top of the tinted yellow depiction is a dandelion.
Hung Liu, American, 1948-2021. Route 66. Lithograph on paper, 2015. Museum Purchase, 2017.01. Photo courtesy of FWMoA. 

The title of the FWMoA’s lithograph, Route 66 (2015), takes its name from the main thoroughfare used by families who had abandoned their farms and homes in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas to travel west in hopes of better opportunities. Similar to Chase the Rabbit, Liu layered different images and borrowed from Lange’s Drought Refugees from Oklahoma (1935).

Children demonstrate their resilience by making a comfortable nest for themselves on a mattress in a truck. The artist juxtaposed them with a close-up of a dandelion. Like the dust storms that carried away the degraded topsoil and forced families to migrate, the wind sends dandelion seeds into flight. Liu viewed seeds as a metaphor for the next generation, saying, “It was tragic and hopeful at the same time. It was about the passing of time and chance, because you never know where you may land . . . So migrants over many centuries are like dandelion seeds. They take a chance, generation after generation. And dandelions, like migrants, exist all over the world.”i  

Liu related to Lange’s work on a personal level, as she was an immigrant herself. Working with Lange’s subjects in painting and print form, she felt an intense connection with their feelings of desperation and strength, explaining, “It doesn’t make a difference to me if they were Irish, Mexican, or African American. The faces, the expression, they looked so much like the Chinese. I felt the connection was profound, not just historically but personally. ”ii 

A black woman holds a child against a lavendar background. The woman appears haggard and wears a bright green robe over a white dress. Her hands are crossed, sporting a wedding ring, over the baby who sleeps bundled in a white blanket.
Hung Liu, American, 1948-2021. Black Madonna. Lithograph on paper, 2015. Museum Purchase, 2017.02. Photo courtesy of FWMoA. 

Black Madonna (2015) references Lange’s photograph of a mother and child in San Francisco. The pose recalls traditional paintings of the Madonna and Child, as discussed in a previous blog post on iconography.

Our attention is immediately drawn to the mother’s finely modeled face, hands, and baby that stand out in contrast to the flat colors of her dress, blanket, and setting. The artist made the mother’s sweater a light green and simplified the home interior to a lavender plane, thereby removing all sense of time and place and giving the work a more universal quality. The bright colors lend a contemporary air to the black-and-white Depression-era source.   

From 1990 to 2014, Liu taught at Mills College in Oakland, CA. Her work can be found in major museums across the country. The painter’s work is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in the retrospective exhibition of portraits, Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands (August 27, 2021 – May 30, 2022). 

i Hung Liu, et. al., Hung Liu: American Exodus (New York: Nancy Hoffman Gallery, 2016), 103. 

ii Liu, 102. 

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