Oakland painter Hung Liu combines Western and Chinese traditions to create larger-than-life images of everyday people who have been lost in the sweep of history. In “Paint x 3,” Spark visits Liu in her studio as she works on a series of canvases for an exhibition in New York in May 2005.
Born in China in the 1940s, Liu came of age during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. As a young woman, Liu was sent to labor in a remote village and learn a distorted account of Chinese history as part of her “reeducation.” Four years later, she trained as an artist in Beijing, where she was taught to paint in the Social Realist style so that she would be able to serve the state by making colossal mural paintings of Mao and other prominent members of the Communist Party.
In 1984, after years of working as an artist and teacher in China, Liu immigrated to the United States and began making paintings informed by a wider perspective on her nation’s history. Her work was enhanced when, during a 1990 visit to China, Liu discovered several hundred photographs from the time of the Cultural Revolution. These photographs have formed a basis for much of her work since. Personal photos from this era are rare because families often destroyed images that might be used as evidence that they were not proletarians.
Many of these images are extremely rare portraits of prostitutes, made in limited numbers for distribution to patrons. Liu’s latest series monumentalizes these anonymous young women by depicting them in a style usually reserved for historical figures. Her canvases are rendered in a photorealist mode that looks back to her work for the Communist Party, yet they are populated by individuals that are the object, rather than the subject, of history.
The photorealism of the works is tempered by Liu’s technique of diluting her paint with linseed oil, which then is dripped onto the surface, blurring and distorting the portrait. The painting becomes akin to a memory image, which cannot claim to be objective, but fades and changes over time.
Liu earned a B.A. in education at Beijing Teacher’s College before studying mural painting at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Art. In 1986 she earned an M.F.A. from the University of California, San Diego. Liu has received numerous awards, including two painting fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally in such venues as the Smithsonian Institution, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, the National Museum of American Art and the Walker Center. She currently resides in Oakland and is a professor of visual arts at Mills College.