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The Art of Hung Liu: Spanning cultures, Transcending Dogma

 

Hung Liu, Allentown, 2015, oil on canvas, 80" x 80", Photo: Ben Blackwell, images courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery. 
 

Hung Liu: Dandelions
February 21 - April 11, 2015
Walter Maciel Gallery, Los Angeles

By MEGAN ABRAHAMS, MAR. 2015

Spanning cultures, transcending dogma, and circumventing time, this important selection of recent work by Hung Liu is rich with history, symbolism, dramatic narrative, and the lustre of oil paint applied by an eloquent hand. Three distinct series are represented in this diverse exhibition: large scale oil paintings of Chinese laborers; mixed media works portraying late 19th and early 20th century Chinese prostitutes; and paintings of dandelions -- references to which crop up across all three series as an itinerant theme linking the work.

The dandelion became a focal point for the artist during a road trip in the summer of 2014, when she took numerous photographs of the quotidian flowers in fields. In her large-scale paintings based on the photos, most of the depicted dandelions are past their yellow bloom and gone to seed -- paradoxically dying while spreading life. Allentown, (2015, oil on canvas, 80 x 80 inches) has a background of green washes representing diffused and out of focus grass from which a single white dandelion protrudes on an orange stem. The flower, luminous in its center, appears to have a heart. Immortalized on a grand scale, the fluffy white heads of Liu’s dandelions, some partly blown away, seeds dispersing, are riveting subjects.

In a sense, Liu has endeavored to immortalize all her subjects in the work presented here, preserving a part of her own history as well as theirs. Born in Changchun, China in 1948, a year before the creation of the People's Republic of China, the artist lived in Maoist China as a young woman, through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In 1968, as she was about to graduate from high school and begin her art studies, she was sent to the countryside to work in the rice and wheat fields. During the four years she spent there, Liu photographed and drew portraits of local farmers and their families.

Her series portraying Chinese laborers evolved from that documentation. In Loess Plateau (2015, oil on linen/canvas, 60 x 84 inches) five figures are grouped in a field, progressively diminishing in size into the fading perspective. Through their somewhat ambiguous identities, a hint of a smile is discernable on the muted features of a worker’s face. The background culminates with a mountain in the distance. Dandelions make an appearance in the foreground, among dripping washes of diluted paint. In striking contrast, forcing the piece into a 21st century context, on the right is an adjoining panel in ochre and sienna pigments applied with thick strokes of the palette knife on a flat plane. Suspended on a cup-hook affixed to the canvas is a five-point star, a symbol of the Communist party, as in the large star on the flag of the People’s Republic of China. 

Hung Liu, Loess Plateau, 2015, oil on canvas and linen, 60" x 84", Photo: Ben Blackwell images courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery. 

While the artist uses historical photographs as a reference for her work, there is a perceivable spirit of improvisation in her approach to the canvas, the fluidity with which she applies the paint, the diluted washes she uses at different stages of her process, allowing vast quantities of drips to infuse her work with a sense of immediacy and impermanence. She has referred to gravity as her secret collaborator. It’s this natural force that allows her oil paint, thinned with linseed oil, to drip down the surface in cascading trails.  

Liu trained as a muralist at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. She emigrated to the U.S. in 1984 to pursue a graduate degree in visual arts at the University of California San Diego. Seven years later, she returned from a visit to China with a box of historical photographs that would become the source material for much of her future work. Among the photographs she brought back are several hundred images of prostitutes in formal studio settings, made in limited numbers for patrons. These photos became the source for her multi-media series focusing on these figures.

Orchestrating the convergence of old and new, Liu created these works through a multi-step process. Recycling her own subject matter, images of the prostitutes are scanned into a background landscape. Four layers of resin are applied over the background -- a veneer both literal and metaphorical. The resin appears thick, slightly yellowed, accentuating the sense that we are viewing the female figures through a lens into the past. On attached side panels, the artist has juxtaposed landscape vignettes reminiscent of traditional Chinese paintings. The use of metallic gold and silver in the background contributes another element of traditional technique, an echo of history. 

Hung Liu, Seasons: Autumn with Cynical Fish, 2014, oil on canvas, 60" x 72" Photo Credit: Sam Gezari

On the side panels of these, and the surfaces of many of her paintings, Liu has superimposed additional traditional motifs, or symbolic elements -- flowers, fish, flourishes -- infused with a contemporary point of view. In Seasons: Autumn with Cynical Fish and Seasons: Winter with Cynical Fish, (both 2014, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches) the artist has coupled a formal portrait of a girl on the right, with a contrasting adjoining panel on the left, painted a flat white. On the panels she has painted a fish, which she has apparently characterized as cynical, in a humorous allusion to its facial expression. In Autumn, the fish looks away from the girl. In Winter, it faces the female subject, as if playfully interacting with her. Offering continuity, in Autumn, the female figure wears a brooch or medallion which, perhaps by coincidence, resembles a golden dandelion in full bloom.

It is striking that Hung Liu has chosen ordinary subjects such as peasants working in the field, prostitutes in a salon, dandelions rather than exotic flowers. Through her symbolic gestures and motifs, it is the artist’s apparent intention to immortalize and protect these subjects. More than immortalize them, in a sense, Liu collapses history. She pays homage to her subjects, honoring them by making them relevant today, in the new context of her profound and captivating vision. 

Most intriguing, Liu has also imprinted her signature circle on top of these and many of her works, a practice she began in 1999. A rough circular shape, apparently rendered in a single gestural motion without lifting the brush, the circle may connote the painting is finished, like the circle used after the characters in Chinese writing, as in a period at the end of a sentence. More poignant, the circle is a symbol intended to protect her subjects, as though in the act of painting them, she has become their guardian. A never-ending line, the circle is meant to allow her subjects a better existence in their next life than that they experienced in the last. 

A companion retrospective of Liu’s work is on view at the Palm Springs Art Museum February 25 through May 24, 2015. The artist lives and works in Oakland, California. WM 

Hung Liu, Opium, 2014, mixed media with resin, 41" x 93", Photo: Trillium Graphics, images courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery. 

Hung Liu, Imperial Garden, 2014, mixed media with resin, 60" x 97", Photo: Trillium Graphics,  images courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery. 

Hung Liu, Ladies, 2014, mixed media with resin, 60" x 92 3/4", Photo: Trillium Graphics, images courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery. 

 

 

Megan Abrahams

Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings. 

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