Hung Liu-Above the Dirt
Dimensions: 48 x 48″
Media: oil on canvas
Above the Dirt is part of Hung Liu’s continuing dialogue between past and present, exploring American struggle via the Dust Bowl era photography of Dorothea Lange. Above the Dirt is Liu’s rendition of the joy that can be found in childhood, even in the face of seemingly unsurmountable circumstance. This painting shows Liu’s supreme mastery of line and color, through her contouring circular shapes that provide the shading of the figure. Hung Liu likens these colored contour lines to Leonard Cohen’s lyrics in his “Anthem”–“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Thus even in the most trying times of human struggle, the spark and vibrancy of life can still shine through our worn facade.
Hung Liu is undoubtedly one of the most revered contemporary painters in the U.S. as well as in China, with works included in top museum collections such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and many others. It is with enormous excitement that Turner Carroll presents to you Hung’s newest paintings in which she focuses on the struggle, perseverance, and ultimate transcendence of Depression-Era America. I believe these paintings are among the most artistically significant Hung Liu has created in her long career.
Liu was born in China to a captain in Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army; her father was captured by Communist forces and imprisoned in a labor camp. Hung and her mother fled to Beijing, where they survived Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the mass famine it induced. Hung’s mother destroyed all family photos which included Hung’s father in order to protect Hung from the Mao regime, which viewed Nationalists and their families as enemies of the people. Hung thus came to treasure family photographs, whether they depicted her own family or someone else’s.
Hung was sent to the countryside for proletarian “re-education” at age 20, and worked in rice and wheat fields among China’s downtrodden, 364 days/year, for four long years. A friend asked Hung to safeguard her camera during that time, and Hung took secret photographs of the Chinese people alongside whom she toiled. These photographs became her collective family album; they are the basis for her iconic portraits in which she has memorialized these workers’ humanity for the last thirty years of her painting practice.
In recent years, Hung Liu became fascinated with American Depression-Era photographs. It’s not surprising Liu feels an affinity for the migrants, women, and children whom Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers like Dorothea Lange captured so intimately. Like the Americans in the photographs, Hung was a laborer who left family members behind and migrated to find a better life. Hung is, herself, like the proud mother in Lange’s “Breast Milk,” and she is also a determined child in “American Dream” and “South.”
Liu has found kindred, artistic visionaries in Dorothea Lange and other Depression-era photographers. Just as Hung has always given the downtrodden new lives of beauty in her paintings, these American photographers canonize the dignity of human perseverance in their photographs. As David M. Roth writes of Liu’s current body of American Depression-Era paintings, “These are respectful tributes, not re-interpretations…Liu…consistently wrings transcendence from austerity.” Part of the transcendent aspect of these paintings lies in the way Liu electrifies the figures with multi-colored outlines. Hung describes these bright outlines as “hope, coming from the cracks between things”—almost like a halo of the human spirit.
When recently asked by a museum group why she chose to paint American, rather than Chinese subjects, Hung responded “we can adopt each other’s children, so why can’t we adopt each other’s ancestors?” This one statement, for me, sums up the true essence and quintessential importance of Hung Liu’s work. She paints the shared struggle of humanity, and transforms that struggle into the most sublime beauty.
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