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Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu

Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu

Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu

Oakland Museum of California
March 16-June 30, 2013

The San Francisco Bay Area painter and installation artist Hung Liu has long been one of my favorite visual artists. I had a chance to visit a survey exhibit of her work at the Oakland Museum of California during the museum’s free First Sunday, and was not disappointed.

I first became aware of Liu’s art when I encountered an image of Interregnum (2002, pictured right). The stark juxtaposition of backbreaking farm work and fanciful ease of aristocratic, heavenly life was striking, and it struck a chord with me as both as an artist and a social justice activist. I had also never seen such a combination of styles and iconography. It clearly drew on and mutated traditions of both social realism and older visual languages to create something new.
While Liu’s work spans numerous periods, starting with her youth during the Cultural Revolution and the present-day United States, one of her most consistent themes is the reclaiming and reframing of people in old black and white photographs, especially women, and making them the central actors in her tableaus. The women she features include prostitutes, peasants, mothers, schoolgirls, laborers, aristocrats, and Chinese Americans. These paintings often also have overlaid animals and plants, which she uses as “offerings” to these various ancestors.

Other work looks at immigration, or contains more overtly political themes—much of it through the lens of memory—looking back at her experiences of China and communism. Her depictions of socialist workers and soldiers often have an element of the idealistic nationalism of the revolution’s early days in power, though her departure from social realism into more painterly washes and corrosive techniques introduces an almost nostalgic dreaminess that erodes their triumphalism.

For those looking, there are also culturally Buddhist elements in some of her paintings, some explicit, some not. For example, a series of forty-nine paintings she created each day after her mother’s death is in keeping with the Buddhist tradition of mourning for forty-nine days. Another, Above the Clouds, depicts Lu Zo, a young Tibetan monk and reincarnation of a high lama, surrounded by Chinese iconography.

An interesting tension in this depiction of Lu Zo is revealed when one considers the complex neo-colonialist relationship China has with Tibet. While the Chinese government sees Tibet as an ancient, though marginal tributary province, the present-day Tibetan struggle for independence asserts its historical, cultural, and linguistic difference in the face of Chinese military conquest, settlement, and assimilationist policies. Liu’s use of Chinese iconography, some of which have no equivalent in Tibetan visual traditions, to surround a Tibetan monk seems like an echo of the Chinese nationalist version of history.

Overall, I am very glad to have been able to view Hung Liu’s work in person. I had not realized their dimensions were so large. For example, “Interregnum” is 8 feet high by 9.5 feet wide (243.8 x 289.6 cm), and to be able to examine her brushstrokes and washes closely was a pleasure. The themes and content of her work over time are provocative, and at times evoke contradictory or ambivalent feelings, which to me is a mark of interesting art. Social realist art was meant to be didactic and ideological, with no room for ambivalence. Ironically, Hung Liu’s techniques introduce an aspect of life that is less clear cut but no less real—the always changing and vitiating influence of memory.

Hung Liu’s website:

Featured images courtesy of Oakland Museum of California:

Chinese Profile III, 1998
Oil on canvas
80 x 80 inches (203.2 x 203.2 cm) Collection of Judy and Bill Timken

Interregnum, 2002
Oil on canvas
96 x 114 inches (243.8 x 289.6 cm)
Collection of Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri, gift of the William T. Kemper Charitable Trust, 2006.7

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