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

As is true of many Chinese artists of her generation, Liu was trained in the academic 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.