Hung Liu, a Chinese-American artist whose work fused past and present, East and West, earned her acclaim in her adopted country and censored in the country of her birth, died Aug. 7 at her home in Oakland, California. She was 73 .
The cause was pancreatic cancer, Nancy Hoffman Gallery, which represents Ms. Liu in New York, said in a statement.
Her death came less than three weeks before the scheduled opening of a career survey, “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands,” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. She was the first Asian-American woman to have a solo exhibition there.
“Five-thousand-year-old culture on my back; late twentieth-century world in my face,” Ms. Liu described her life-changing arrival to the United States from China in 1984, when she was 36. and already an accomplished painter. Her goal in America, she once said, was “to find a way to allow myself to practice as a Chinese artist outside of a Chinese culture.”
As she soon learned, one problem with being a Chinese artist outside of China was the need to deal with and counteract cultural expectations. Her name alone automatically evoked associations in many Western viewers with time-honoured but stereotypical ‘Eastern’ art forms such as calligraphy and painting with brush and ink. Moreover, at the time, before the arrival of the globalist art wave in the 1990s, the art world in Europe and the United States had little awareness that contemporary Chinese art even existed.
Her work included photo-based images that combined the political and the personal. Many of these images were of figures forgotten by history: workers, immigrants, prisoners, prostitutes. In some cases, she depicted them with floral wreaths. There were also portraits of her Chinese family, including one of her father, taken from a photo she herself had taken while visiting him in a labor camp.
Her 1988 painting “Resident Alien,” which was her most reproduced, is a mural-sized image of her green card. It contains a realistically rendered self-portrait, but the identifying name on the card has been changed to “Cookie, Fortune” and the year of birth from 1948 to 1984, the year she emigrated.
Hung Liu was born on February 17, 1948 in Changchun, northeast China, during the revolutionary era. When she was a child, her father, a teacher, was imprisoned for his involvement in anti-communist politics. During the Cultural Revolution, she herself was sent to the countryside by the government to work on farms for ‘re-education’. While there, she secretly photographed and sketched everyday village life.
She also traveled in China, visiting historic sites and using a pocket-sized paint box to create murals carved and painted by Buddhist monks from the fifth to 14th centuries in caves in Dunhuang, in the far west of Gansu. province.
In the 1970s she studied at the Peking Teachers College and the Central Academy of Fine Arts. In 1981 she obtained a graduate degree from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, where she specialized in and taught mural painting.
Restless with the officially sanctioned socialist-realist style and subjects, she repeatedly asked the Chinese government for a passport permitting travel to the United States. When the permission finally came in 1984 she flew to California and enrolled in the MFA program at the University of California, San Diego.
One of her teachers there was the conceptual artist Allan Kaprow, who had long been familiar with Asian art and saw both art and culture as ductile categories. His presence provided a welcoming environment for her goals.
After receiving a residency at the Capp Street Project, an art space and artist residency in San Francisco, in 1988, Ms. Liu settled permanently in the Bay Area. In 1990, she began a long teaching career at Mills College in Oakland. In 2014 she retired.
Her first show in the United States, in 1985, featured drawings she brought back from the Dunhuang murals, but the work she began producing in California was very different.
Its political content became more emphatic in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In a mixed-media installation from that year, “Trauma,” the carved figure of a woman dressed in traditional Chinese robes floats on her feet. tied up on the wall above the body of a fallen student. On the wall between them hangs the black silhouette of Mao Zedong’s face. The floor below is spattered with blood-red paint.
In 1994, Mrs. Liu in front of the MH de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, an installation commemorating the Chinese immigrants who died during the construction of the western part of the transcontinental railway. In the 2000s she began to work intensively with non-Chinese sources, basing a series of paintings on documentary photographs of the Great Depression by American photographer Dorothea Lange. The scenes of rural poverty in Dust Bowl, captured by Lange, reminded her of the scenes she had seen and captured in drawings when she lived among the rural poor in China.
Most of Ms. Liu’s paintings are made in a brush-like version of the realist style in which she was trained. But because she was skeptical of any claim of veracity in the depiction of history, she routinely covered the surface of her paintings with linseed oil washes, causing streams of transparent liquid to flow across the canvas. This formal effect has led to various interpretations: blurred memory, tears, reality as an illusion.
Ms. Liu has had several institutional shows in the United States, including the 2013 retrospective “Summoning the Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu,” which was hosted by the Oakland Museum of California and traveled nationally. The exhibition “Hung Liu: Golden Gate” is currently on display at the de Young Museum. The National Portrait Gallery show, which runs through May 30, 2022, is her first major East Coast presentation.
In 2008, as China loosened up culturally, Ms. Liu a retrospective at the Xin Beijing Gallery. But a 2019 survey planned for the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing was abruptly canceled by the Chinese government, even after agreeing to its demand to remove pieces that, in light of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, were considered seditious.
Ms. Liu is survived by her husband, the critic and curator Jeff Kelley; a son, Lingchen Kelley; and a grandson.
In addition to her paintings, Ms. Liu produced a few permanent public works, including “Going Away, Coming Home,” a 60-foot mural installed at Oakland International Airport. It consists entirely of glass windows painted with images derived from a 12th-century Chinese scroll painting: dozens of ethereal flying white cranes, traditional Chinese symbols of good fortune.
The image is one of the most unabashedly poetic images of an artist who wrote in ‘Ghosts/Seventy Portraits’, a collection of her work from 2020: ‘When I moved to the West, exactly half a lifetime ago, I carried my spirits with me. The spirits I carry with me are a burden, but also a blessing.”