In the late 1940s, Chinese leader Mao Zedong created a society which ostensibly had room for artists—but only to a certain extent. The most talented young painters fine-tuned their skills in Beijing, at the Central Academy of Fine Arts; but art-making there was never a means of personal expression, rather a vehicle for communist propaganda. Students were instructed to glorify laborers with heroic, optimistic imagery.
This is the China into which artist Hung Liu was born. Growing up in central Changchun, she worked both in the fields as an agricultural laborer and was also trained as a muralist in the Socialist Realist style at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Though she was highly regarded there, Liu's art world wasn't glitzy, not even remotely. And her paintings—of farmers, concubines and rural life in China—continue to reflect that, even though they're oftentimes sublimely beautiful, embellished with objectively pretty colors and lush detail.
When Liu emigrated to the United States in 1984, she headed for the University of California, San Diego, where she received an MFA in painting. A professor of art at Mills College in Oakland since 1990, Liu's recognizable style largely hinges on re-imagining historic Chinese photographs into hyper-realistic paintings and mixed-media works.
Canyon Road's Turner Carroll Gallery, which has shown Liu for a decade, displays a range of works in the show Hung Liu: Women Who Work, to celebrate the artist's solo exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. The museum, which is the largest of its kind dedicated exclusively to advancing women's artworks, is displaying prints and tapestries by the septuagenarian artist through July of this year.
When Liu left China, she also left behind rules that dictated not just her subject matter, but also her technique. It feels especially intriguing, then, that in some ways Liu's artistic focus on the proletariat never stopped: in China or stateside, the emphasis on humanity in both cases acts as a sort of visual advocate for laboring classes. Workers, often women, are conveyed with earnest straightforwardness, but their lives don't appear grim or bleak, not the way Liu reverentially depicts them; elsewhere, lavishly pretty portraits of young brides, embellished with faded flowers or gold-leafed details, are dazzlingly romantic—not obviously critical of Mao's agenda.
Almost universally, Liu overlays her work with floating rings, whose borders drip downward, gently obscuring the composition. These circles have their roots in ancient calligraphy, but the simple visual marker of a closed ring is immediately pleasing for its simplicity and gentle physicality. Do Liu's painted drips mimic tears? Sweat? Do they reference history's liquid, ever-fluid nature? Maybe they act as a veil, providing privacy not just to the subject, but to the artist as well.
In "Winter Blossom," the solemn face of a girl (gallery-provided text tells us it's 19th-century Imperial concubine Zhen Fei) is partially hidden by bright pink flowers which sprout from a ropy, knotted tree branch. It's a print, but its brilliant color and surface-spanning drips imbue it with enough texture and intrigue to rival the impact of an oil-on-canvas.
Liu doesn't always depict Chinese people or themes. In "Cotton Field," a black woman with gold hoops in her ears is posed facing us, a bundled scarf on her head and a large, pale lavender loop positioned above her right shoulder, its droplets overlaying her brown arm. Her mouth is opened slightly, and she looks thoughtful, serene.
No matter her subject, Liu approaches it with contagious respect and curiosity, ranging from the almost photojournalistic to the ephemeral. In a way, her obvious admiration for her homeland and its people makes it feel like even though she crossed oceans to arrive here, China is with her at every turn.
Hung Liu: Women Who Work
5 pm Friday March 16. Free.
Turner Carroll Gallery,
725 Canyon Road,