Hung Liu’s paintings are both a product of and response to the philosophies and politics of modern China. Liu came of age during China’s decade-long “Cultural Revolution” of 1966-1976, and her large-scale works are a symbolist mixture of her efforts to define and consequently rise above the social and gender-based oppression she and millions of others experienced.
Born in 1948, Liu was a high school senior when she was sent into China’s countryside to pick rice as part of an enforced “re-education” program. Four years later she returned to Beijing, where she earned a BFA degree in 1975 from the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Art. Yet her work remained strictly state-sanctioned; she was ordered to paint “Tractor art”—realistic depictions glorifying Socialist ideals. Not until she obtained permission to emigrate to the U.S. did Liu begin painting the works she is now celebrated for.
Combining photorealistic skill with expressionist flourishes, her complex compositions are layers of often contradictory cultural symbolism; a painter, Liu’s work begins withphotographs – not taken herself, but of old, often faded images from the past which shecollects. These pictures she calls “a blurred and mysterious veil” between China’s presentand its past, wherein a regime attempted to erase all that did not seem to support it. The political overtones in Liu’s work are unmistakable; yet so is its humanity, the spirit of which she captures in symbolism nearly as old as China itself. The figures she paints areoverlaid with washes and drips, suggesting the obscurity of memory. They are China’s unsung souls: laborers and courtesans, soldiers and civilians, yet Liu depicts them almost mystically surrounded by totems of ancient Chinese folklore. As Liu once put it, “[These people are] anonymous, they were poor probably, they’re long gone… but I think in some ways they’re more importantthan our great leaders…” By aligning such people—long ignored or marginalized—with venerated symbols of Chinese culture, Liu includes them within the grand stream of China’s story.
After emigrating from China in 1984, Liu attended the University of California, San Diego, where she received her Master of Fine Arts degree. She then joined the faculty of Mills College, California where she presently Chairs the Department of Painting. Her work is in collections across the country including the National Museum of American Art in Washington DC, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art & Design in Kansas City. This is her first solo show in Chicago.