Hung Liu – Keep Head Above Water During Swim-Cultural Revolution
Dimensions: 12 3/4 x 16 size type
Medium: digital print on canvas
Hung Liu’s 2013 tapestry edition September depicts a Manchurian bride in formal marriage attire, including an elaborate embroidered headdress which the artist has overlaid with the stylized image of a wild duck. September translates Liu’s kaleidoscopic vision into five hundred colors of woven thread; beneath its eye-catching surface lies a compassionate link, connecting a moment experienced by millions with a single instant in the life of a woman whose story has been lost to history. The tapestry’s composition presents an intoxicating bouquet of symbol and color, combining a figurative, photographic portrait with the cascading rivulets and washes of oil that Liu uses to dissolve the viewer’s sense of photography – and by extension, history – as a complete or trustworthy record.
An 1871 photograph of an anonymous Manchu bride by John Thompson served as the basis for the painting upon which September is based, which Liu completed following the events of September 11th, 2001. The expression of the bride in Thompson’s photograph, Liu says, reflected a moment of uncertainty, a feeling of being at the brink, which she saw echoed in the collective emotional response to the 9/11 attacks. In Liu’s re-imagining, the bride is endowed with the delicate strength and elegance of the wild bird in flight, whose design Liu based on a 10th-century Song dynasty ink painting. Traditionally painted with its head up, the head of Liu’s duck is instead deliberately bowed, as if in mourning or descent. In the wake of 9/11, the artist told me, “the bride symbolizes people involuntarily wed to an unexpected relationship – a new era in our political consciousness.”
Ultimately, September’s vibrancy is reminiscent of those moments in life – whether tragic or hopeful – when our adrenaline and excitement heighten the senses, making colors brighter and passions stronger. These moments where the beauty all around us is suddenly revealed, blooming like the colors surrounding Liu’s bride, are made both more powerful and more fleeting by the knowledge that afterwards, our lives will never be the same.
– Nick Stone
Jiu Yue (September) is part of Hung Liu’s continuing dialogue between past and present.
Hung Liu was born in Changchun, China in 1948. She grew up in Beijing during the time of Mao Zedong. After finishing high school in 1968 she was sent to the countryside for four years during the Cultural Revolution where she worked with peasants in rice, wheat, and cornfields seven days a week. During this time, she photographed and painted these people, and they remain the subjects of her paintings today. Hung wants to give these people a life of beauty and respect in her paintings.
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.
Hung attended the Central Academy of Art in Beijing, and waited seven years for the Chinese government to approve her passport to pursue her Master’s Degree in painting at U.C. San Diego. Since her arrival in the U.S., Hung’s works have been collected and exhibited by this nation’s top museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, Dallas Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, National Museum of Women in the Art, and many, many more. She has created large scale paintings for the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, as well as the Oakland International Airport and the San Francisco International Airport.
Hung Liu has twice received prestigious fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Additionally, she is a Professor Emerita at Mills College in Oakland, California. Several books have been written about Hung Liu and her works, and can be found on the Turner Carroll Gallery web site.
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