From Maoist China to the Bay Area: Hung Liu’s Updated Socialist Realism

In the sculptures, prints, and paintings of Chinese-American artist Hung Liu, the distinct influences of her roots in Maoist China and her current life in California collide. Liu’s vibrant, often ebullient works prove that injecting art with historical references produces rich, meaningful narratives. Drawing both from her strong set of photorealistic painting skills and the personal history of her time in China, she creates works that reflect a determination to keep the culture of her homeland close to her everyday life. At this year’s edition of Palm Springs Fine Art Fair, Liu’s work will feature in a special installation, as well as in Turner Carroll Gallery’s presentation at the fair.

As is true of many Chinese artists of her generation, Liu was trained in the academic socialist realism style, a painting tradition that evolved in China via the influence of the Soviet Union and was intended to depict the heroic plight of the proletariat. Though she left Beijing in 1984 to begin an MFA at UC San Diego—where she was one of the first Chinese artists to study in the United States—and has since resided in the Bay Area, Liu’s multifaceted experience in China had a strong influence on her work going forward, particularly in her interest in the region’s ancient history and her empathetic tendency to portray the most vulnerable members of society. “History is not a static image or a frozen story. It is not a noun,” the artist has explained. “Even if its images and stories are very old, it is always flowing forward. History is a verb.”

Since discovering a trove of historical photographs depicting Chinese prostitutes in 1991, Liu has based many of her paintings on found photographs or film stills of unknown Chinese citizens, usually children, refugees, soldiers, and women. The resulting portraits are evocative amalgamations of past and present in which Liu applies surreal or abstract imagery—geometric shapes, paint splatters, or collage-like organic symbols—that seem to express the emotions of the artist and her subjects.

Liu’s Time Capsule (1999) is included in a special sector at Palm Springs Fine Art Fair; an early work from her long career, it symbolizes the Chinese migration experience. The installation comprises a pyramid of boxes painted with Chinese calligraphy, stamped with shipping labels, and topped with a flag, which makes it vaguely resemble a boat. The work is not only a representation of the material goods that travel the world, but also a reference to the people who are “shipped” as well. A box painted with calligraphy naming Mao as the “Great Helmsman of Communist China” is topped with a five-pointed star—both a sign of Communist China and a reference to five bows of an imaginary ship that cannot be pointed in any one direction, a symbol of the chaos felt by the Chinese population during the Cultural Revolution.

—K. Sundberg

Visit Turner Carroll Gallery at Palm Springs Fine Art Fair 2015, Booth 607 and P4, Feb. 12–15.

Explore Turner Carroll Gallery and Palm Springs Fine Art Fair on Artsy.