Remembering Hung Liu at JSMA

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Install view of Apsaras to “Remember This: Hung Liu at Trillium”
Hung Liu, Apsaras, 2012. Quadriptych in mixed techniques. Donated by artist Hung Liu and Trillium Graphics/David Salgado

In 2018, artist Hung Liu (1948 – 2021) and David Salgado (1949 – 2018), master printer and founder of Trillium Graphics, invited Anne Rose Kitagawa, chief curator of Asian art at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene and then Museum Director Jill Hartz to see the work Liu had produced at the Trillium Graphics studio in Brisbane, California. Salgado had helped Liu develop a “hybrid process” combining engraving and painting. Kitagawa says they went to the studio hoping to buy a single piece of art. Instead, Hartz and Kitagawa were asked if they wanted the whole collection.

Kitagawa remembers being upset. She says, “It was like a proposal.” Of course, they said yes to the offer.

“Remember This: Hung Liu at Trillium” was designed to display and commemorate these 55 works of art which were donated to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon. But this exhibition also celebrates the life and career of the artist. Liu died suddenly in August 2021, two weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.

Kitagawa and current JSMA executive director John Weber expected Liu to speak at the opening of her show in February 2022. The artist was expected to discuss how she came to America to study art, landing at the University of California, San Diego because a friend, who was not an artist, was there and said she heard the school had a good art department. art. Then, although she was accepted in 1980, it took four years for her papers to be processed. When she arrived in San Diego in 1984, she found a very experimental MFA program. In other words, unlike how she had been trained at the Central Academy of Fine Arts of China, where she majored in mural painting and learned to paint in the style of realism. social.

Hung Liu, Village Portrait: Children of the Water2012, edition 5/9, Mixed technique
Donated by artist Hung Liu and Trillium Graphics/David Salgado

Instead, Weber and Jeff Kelley, both graduate students from UCSD in their 80s, gave the lecture on Liu’s road to America in March 2022. Weber was in the room when his candidacy was consulted by people in the department, but she was gone. when she arrived. Jeff Kelley, an art critic and curator, was Liu’s husband. The discussion, narrated by Kitagawa, is a behind-the-scenes look at the artist whose compassion for his fellow human beings seemed to know no bounds.

Liu’s multimedia work at JSMA is the product of 15 years working with Salgado at Trillium Graphics. He helped her work with prints of past paintings so she could manipulate them in new ways, and also created the layers of resin that she would work on in her studio. The result is brilliant, the light reflecting subtly between the layers.

bowl of white rice (2014) is identified as multimedia, as are all the works in the exhibition. It is inspired by a 19e photograph from the last century of a child feeding her younger brother. The children are depicted in a style that reflects Liu’s training as a realist painter. Additional paint is added in layers, on top of the resin plates created by Salgado. Other images that have been painted in bowl of white rice are plant, bird and color gesture brush strokes.

Hung Liu, bowl of white rice, 2014. Mixed media. Donated by artist Hung Liu and Trillium Graphics/David Salgado

The central subject of bowl of white rice however, are children. One helps the other to eat, to survive. This is how Liu envisioned imagining people eating, as if they were trying to survive. She says so in a remarkable video produced by KQED Spark in which she browses old or vintage photographs of people she doesn’t necessarily know, but has painted before. Looking at a photo of someone eating from a bowl, she says, “This peasant has no face. The bowl just covers his face to survive… It’s just an amazing image to me. It reminds me of what a famous poet said. He said, “I have lived many lives, some of which belong to me. I sometimes felt that. »

In the video, Liu looks at a photograph of a woman. “I lived his life,” she says. Then she gestures to the children in a photo: “I lived the life of these children.

Thirty-nine paintings are on display in JSMA’s Barker Hall, but more of Liu’s works are on display along the stairwells, the Soreng Chinese Art Gallery, and in the lobby. The museum presents 53 works in total. Each work can be seen both as a commentary on the perils of human beings and as an object of great beauty.

Apsaras (2012), the museum tells us, is named after Buddhist celestial beings. Their presence evokes the “passage to a higher realm” and in the painting, these female spirits fly from the cave temples of Dunhuang. The painting evokes Liu’s training as a muralist, as it is made up of four panels arranged horizontally on a wall. The horizontal orientation is also related to the time Liu spent in the Gobi Desert while in art school studying cave paintings in Dunhuang.

The central subject is an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that occurred near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, which left millions homeless and killed nearly 90,000 people. A painting depicting Chinese people enduring great suffering, as Apsaras done, would have resulted in punishment if Liu had done so in China. Works of art made in China had to show happy people, even when working in the fields or facing disaster.

Liu herself was sent to work in the fields. It happened just as she was finishing high school. As part of the Cultural Revolution’s effort to “re-educate” people, she worked for four years, with only one day off a year, before she could go to art school. During these four years, she took pictures of her friends and the peasants who lived in the countryside. Multimedia works based on photographs of Hung Liu taken in the countryside (circa 1968-72) is a collection of nine portraits from this period.

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During Kelley’s speech about his late wife’s move to America from China, it was revealed that Liu had studied at UCSD with – of all – Allan Kaprow. Kaprow is one of the avant-garde celebrities in art history, best known for his invention of The Happening. From Kaprow, she must have learned that she didn’t have to paint in any particular style. In fact, she didn’t need to paint at all.

In the 80s and 90s, she created installations and paintings that referenced her status as an immigrant. The monumentally large painting Resident Alien (1988), now in the San Jose Museum of Art, reproduces his US Resident Alien map, but with some modifications. She renamed herself “Cookie, Fortune”, which Kitagawa said was a reference to derogatory slang used to describe Chinese women. It was also meant to be ironic, as Liu found it funny that she was an alien (like ET).

Liu also changed the date of her birth in the painting of her Resident Alien card, to reflect the year of her arrival in the United States: 1984. In 1994, she continued to use the theme of fortune cookies as a medium and metaphor. cultural experience in Jiu Jin Shan: Old Golden Mountainan installation piece containing a stack of 200,000 fortune cookies.

Hung Liu, Fortune cookies, 2013. Icosaptych in mixed media (set of 20), 10×10 inches (each). Donated by artist Hung Liu and Trillium Graphics/David Salgado

fortune cookies, a series of 20 small canvases exhibited at the JSMA, was produced in 2013 and is exhibited at the JSMA. He revisits the theme of his Americanized fake name, painted four years after he arrived in the United States, but paints the cookies this time, rather than using the real one.

Biscuits and paintings look like they have been covered in gold; a color, says Kitagawa, which symbolized for Liu the idea that immigrants could find wealth and good fortune in America (as an immigrant too, my father told me jokingly that we came to America because he had heard there was gold in the streets).

Much can be said about Hung Liu’s work. I haven’t even mentioned his use of Chinese symbols, for example, or perhaps more famously, the combination of realism and drips that make his paintings and multimedia work instantly recognizable. A combination of realistic presence and symbolic gesture that gives the impression of seeing people being forgotten, or who would be forgotten if Liu had not painted them.

It is, however, his subject matter, focusing on immigrant issues and negative stereotypes, that makes Liu’s work so powerful and current. The use of art for social commentary is almost expected these days, but Liu has created artwork that has challenged authoritative texts since the beginning of his life as an artist in the United States. United – 1984 – the time of “his birth”.

It was his goal, Kitagawa says in the exhibit, “to restore dignity to the models by creating lavish and beautiful likenesses”.

“Remember This” is about all those people Liu painted, often strangers she identified with. But it’s also about the incredible empathy she had as an artist. You hear it in the way she talks about painting her subjects in the KQED video, as she skims through black and white photographs. You see it mostly in the way she treated them in her art; surrounded by color, lush backgrounds, and references to history and culture, even when those things weren’t in the photographs she was working from. She makes these additions, as Kitagawa says, to restore the dignity of her subjects, whether they are sitting on a pile of rubble or trying to extract the last morsel of food from a bowl.

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