Sunday, December 11, 2016

Born 1948: Hung Liu, American

Hung Liu is considered one of the most significant Chinese-American contemporary artists living today. A teacher at Mills College for the past 20 years, she lives and works in Oakland. Liu is her family name; her first name is Hung. Her work is frequently seen at local museums.

Background: Hung was born in Changchun, China in 1948, and grew up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Soon after her birth, her father, an officer in Chiang Kai Shiek's Nationalist army, was arrested, and her mother was forced to divorce him in order to protect herself and her newborn child. He was sent to jail, and was imprisoned on and off for the next fifty years. Hung found him in a prison labor camp in 1994.

Learn from the poor and lower-middle peasants and serve them, 1972

Training: Hung excelled as a student, but with the coming of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s, she was sent to labor in a remote village for 4 years.

After the Cultural Revolution, Hung was admitted to Beijing Teachers College, where she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1975. Subsequently she received a graduate degree in Mural Painting from the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing in 1981. She acknowledges the influence of socialist-realist mural-painting techniques she was taught.

When Hung was 36—in 1984—she was allowed to leave China to study at UC San Diego, where she had been was offered a scholarship in the graduate studio-art program. One of the first people from mainland China to study abroad and pursue an art career, she received her MFA in painting two years later. She has since received a number of grants and awards.

Hung Liu in front of a painting from
her "Daughters of China" series
Career: Hung career started in 1975, after she graduated from Teachers College, when she began teaching art at an elite school in Beijing. She also began weekly art lessons for children on television. Her program “How to Draw and Paint,” was renowned, and lasted several years.

In this country, Hung has specialized in paintings based on historical Chinese photographs. Her subjects over the years have been prostitutes, refugees, street performers, soldiers, laborers, and prisoners, among others. She combines these figures with classically rendered birds, flowers, and calligraphy. She washes her realistic images in veils of dripping linseed oil, creating a sort of "weeping realism," that suggests the erosion of memory and the passage of time, while also bringing faded photographic images vividly to life as rich paintings.

In 1991 Hung was able to visit China. She discovered a collection of turn of the century photos of Chinese prostitutes, which became the source for many paintings.

In later years she became especially interested in the Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange. She has used many of Lange’s images of Dust Bowl refugee children and black and Latino workers in paintings.

Another recent body of work turns away from the human figure in favor of botanicals. These very detailed, 80-by-80-inch paintings concentrate their gaze on the humble dandelion, found throughout both China and the U.S. She says, "The dandelion is not a pretty flower. Everybody tries to kill them. It’s a survivor story.”

In 1986 Hung Liu had an exhibition in Washington, D.C. that included an installation piece: a pyramid of "Fortune Cookies." There were also works in new forms.

In 1990, Liu became a professor in the Art Department at Mills College. She retired in 2014.

Aged 69 in 2017, Hung Liu is amazingly productive and has had several exhibitions in the Bay Area in the last few years.


A Third World, 1994
Santa Barbara Museum of Art / Internet

Chinese Profile II, 1998
SJMA / Internet blog (private shot, against the rules)

Shoemakers, 1999
Crocker / Jan's photo

Sister, 2000
NMWA / Internet
Silver River, 2003 (small section)
Site-specific mural
San Jose / Internet
Jade Lady, 2006
Oil on board
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, MA
Photo by Dan L. Smith, 2006

Montain Ghost, 2012

The Botanist, 2013
SFMOMA / Jan's photo

Ladies, 2014
Internet grab

Allentown, 2015

Title not given on Hung Liu's website, 2016

Private life:

At the age of 29, after  securing a position as an art teacher at an elite elementary school in Beijing, Hung married an architect. They separated within a year; her son, Ling Chen, was born the following year. It appears that Ling Chen was cared for by Hung's mother and aunt, until her career in the United States was established.

Hung came to the U.S. in 1984 to study at UCSD. Here she met fellow student Jeff Kelley, a specialist in art history, and the two were married in 1986. Her son Ling Chen joined them that year, at the age of eight. Both Hung Liu and her son became citizens in 1991.

Kelley is a prominent art critic and historian, who has recently retired as Consulting Curator of Contemporary Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. The couple lives in Oakland. Kelley manages Liu's studio.

Jeff Kelley, art critic and curator

Jeff and Hung, outside SJMA, 2014
Internet blog