Hung Liu was born in Changchun, China in 1948. She grew up in Beijing during the time of Mao Zedong. After finishing high school in 1968 she was sent to the countryside for four years during the Cultural Revolution where she worked with peasants in rice, wheat, and cornfields seven days a week. During this time she photographed local farmers with their families and also made drawings of them. In 1972 she entered the Revolutionary Entertainment Department of Beijing’s Teachers College to study art and education. After graduating in 1975 she began teaching art at an elite Beijing school, Jing Shan, and also began to teach a program for children on television, “How to Draw and Paint,” which lasted several years and was renowned. In 1979 she attended the Central Academy of Fine Arts where she majored in mural painting. In 1980 she applied to the visual arts program at the University of California, San Diego. After being accepted, it took Liu four years to obtain a passport from the Chinese government. She arrived in California in 1984.
On the morning of July 27 1976 Hung Liu, on a trip to northern China to paint landscapes, was jolted awake in a dormitory in the industrial city of Tangshan by one of the largest earthquakes to hit the modern world. Within fifteen seconds, the 7.8 magnitude quake had killed 242,000 people. Earlier that year, Zhou Enlai had died of cancer, and later that year Mao Zedong would die as well. The ramifications of the Tangshan quake effectively ended the Cultural Revolution. The Gang of Four would soon be put on trial. In China, natural disasters are seen as harbingers of profound changes in the cosmic (and thus political) order.
On May 12 2008, as Liu arrived in Beijing for two solo exhibitions of her work, the 8.0 Sichuan Earthquake hit the mountainous regions of southern China, killing approximately 90,000 people, including thousands of school children whose shoddily constructed class rooms collapsed. In the year since, Liu has devoted herself to a series of paintings depicting people in the aftermath of the Sichuan quake. The subject of these paintings is less the disaster itself than the expressions of mythic emotions on the faces of the survivors: grief, shock, confusion, stunned silence, courage, and mourning. In some works, the settings show human figures amidst expansive devastation; in others we see only close-up faces. The subjects in Liu’s new paintings betray states of mind caught in the wake of disaster, ranging from the open-mouthed wail of an old woman to a young girl’s gaze in an unbroken mirror as she brushes her hair in the rubble of what once was her home. A small child’s eyes dart around her in uncertainty; another’s are blank as she holds a cloth mask to her face. These are expressions of the moment after, before shock has given way to despair, when helplessness abides, when poses (Liu has often painted poses) are impossible and people are unaware of how they appear.
Passing across their faces, both figuratively and literally, are traditional images of Buddhist flying angels, known in Chinese as Fei Tian. More generally, they are known as Apsaras, or heavenly nymphs. In the late 1970s, Liu studied and copied the Buddhist iconography painted on the walls of the ancient Dunhuang Caves in Gansu Province, located along the Silk Road in the Gobi Desert. These “caves of a thousand Buddhas,” spanning a thousand years of human culture, contain some of the finest known examples of Buddhist art, including countless flying angels, which were originally painted as aids to meditation and enlightenment, like visual offerings. As she has often done in her paintings of the past ten years, Liu “offers” her modern subjects, whether refugees, soldiers, laborers, or children, examples of their own ancient culture – in this case, the flying angels of Dunhuang. This act of offering has sometimes been misunderstood as a form of postmodern bricolage, in which disparate images are plucked from various historical sources and juxtaposed in ways that challenge, rather than reinforce, meaning. In fact, the images of birds, flowers, and religious iconography Liu circulates within her otherwise photo-derived visual fields are more like prayers than provocations, attempts to repair a picture broken by war, famine, social chaos, or, as in these paintings, earthquake.
In addition to her human subjects, Liu has painted a sequence of four images of a dead deer she found and photographed as she was hiking near her home in Oakland, California. Photographed from above, the prone animal, though lying on the ground, seems to be flying or rotating through space. The four canvases, each with a painted variation of the deer, represent the seasons and the cardinal directions. They also embody the experiences of reorientation, time shifting, chance and change. Along with the grace of its limbs and body, the sense of the deer’s weightlessness reminded Liu of the Fei Tien (the flying angels) of Dunhuang. Moreover, Liu had seen first-hand how the color of many of these Buddhist “Apsaras” had turned black through time as oxidization set in, not unlike the skin of a corpse or a mummy. Like the deer, the flying angels were dead - something of an afterlife was hinted at, but corporeal in nature, not transcendent. Since Liu first found the deer, she has found several more, and birds as well, as if they have fallen from the sky.
Trained in Chinese Socialist Realism during the era of Mao, Liu has become known for a drippy, layered style of painting that erodes the hard neo-classical surface of the once-official style. With these paintings, she returns to a more controlled academic application of paint, but in order to fill the canvas with ruin and fragmentation, the broken remains of the earth rupturing – with chaos.
After the Tongshan quake of 1976, the Chinese government refused international aid and did not disclose details of the disaster. In Liu’s new paintings, the painted details – depicting the shattered settings of people’s lives – testify to the continuing role of Chinese (but not Socialist) realism in bearing witness to modern history. What the artist also tries to capture in the stunned faces of history’s anonymous witnesses, though, are the Apsaras that rise up from the nation’s ancient past, and out of hers as well.
Hung Liu’s work has been shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Contemporary Museum, Baltimore, Maryland; The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia; Denver Art Museum, Colorado; The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young Museum, California; Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Indiana; Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, New York; Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman; John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Knoxville Museum of Art, Tennessee; Santa Clara University, California; Monterey Museum of Art, California; Oakland Museum of California; New Britain Museum of Art, Connecticut; Polk Museum of Art, Lakeland, Florida; Rutgers University, Paul Robeson Gallery, Newark, New Jersey; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; San Jose Museum of Art, California; Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan, Republic of China.
The artist’s work is included in the collections of Boise Art Museum, Idaho; Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York; City of San Jose, California; Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, California; Dallas Museum of Art, Texas; The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young Museum, California; Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Indiana; Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, Kansas City, Missouri; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California; National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; Oakland Museum of California; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California; San Jose Museum of Art, California; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota; The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
She has received commissions for public art projects from Capp Street Project, San Francisco; City of Cerritos; Civic Center, San Francisco; Embarcadero Center, San Francisco; Moscone Convention Center, San Francisco; Oakland International Airport; San Jose Museum of Art and the City of San Jose Collection; University of California, San Diego, all in California, and at the Center Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China.
The artist has twice received a Painting Fellowship from the National Endowment for the
Arts; Capp Street Project Stipend, California College of Arts & Crafts, San Francisco; Eureka Fellowship in Painting, The Fleishhacher Foundation, San Francisco, California; The Joan Mitchell Foundation, Painters Sculptors Grant, New York, New York; Russell Foundation Grant, University of California, San Diego. She has won the San Francisco Women’s Center Humanities Award, California; Contemporary Art by Women of Color Artists’ Award, Guadalupe Cultural Center, San Antonio, Texas and Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) Award, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California. She was Distinguished Artist in Residence, Jerome M. and Wanda Otey Westheimer Chair, University of Oklahoma, Norman, and has also received grants and scholarships from University of California, San Diego and Mills College, Oakland, California.
Hung Liu resides in Oakland, California.
The website will be permanently closed shortly, so please retrieve any content you wish to save.