Painting Into the Past

Artist uses photographs as foundation to reanimate forgotten Chinese history

Date July 17, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Categories Local News & Sports


It seems to me that imagery plays the preeminent role in how we remember our lives and how we tell our stories, to ourselves and others. While the younger generation€™s primary image memories will no doubt be moving images, for those of us who are older, an inquiry about our past often calls up not a mental movie but a still photograph.

What of those who have no family photo albums, no films to crank up the old projector for? The orphaned and adopted, victims of household fires, floods and tornadoes €” how do they know their histories without pictures of their childhoods and families?

Chinese-American artist Hung Liu€™s paintings of the last 20 years have served in part as an homage to the history of the Chinese people €” individual and collective €” that was buried or rewritten during the Cultural Revolution. Born in Changchun, China, in 1948, Liu lost her father at age 2 when the Communists arrested him and sent him to labor camps. Photos of her family were destroyed. At age 18, like many young Chinese, she was shipped off for €œreeducation€™€™ in the rice fields for four years. When she was freed, she earned art degrees in Beijing, mastering the regime-approved social realist style, and eventually became famous as a television painting instructor. Allowed to emigrate to the United States in 1984, she earned a master€™s in fine arts degree at the University of California, San Diego, and began an academic career as well as continuing to paint. Since 2001 she has been a professor of art at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.; her artworks have been exhibited extensively throughout the United States and in China, and are in many museum collections as well.

Liu uses as the foundation for her paintings large-format transfers of black-andwhite photographs, often formal posed portraits, of Chinese people of the 19th and 20th centuries. She has primarily used images of women €” prostitutes, laborers, acrobats €” painting over them in layers of colored oil pigment, metallic leafs and resin to effectively modernize them. She often adds traditional Chinese symbols with positive connotations €” birds, fish, lotus flowers, dragonflies, butterflies, the circular symbol for home €” in her layers of paint. Using pigment thinned with linseed oil, she allows the paint to drip and wash, as if drawing a curtain across the painful pasts of the people depicted.

In this exhibit at Turner Carroll, Liu shows a diversity of these portraits, including some that reference the Chinese opera. (During her enforced €œreeducation€ she performed in operas deifying Chairman Mao.) The best of these is €œVisage,€ a complex triptych including at its center a portrait of a youthful female face flanked by narrow panels featuring grids of graphic, appropriated drawings of opera masks on yellowed squares of paper. These designs are fascinatingly similar to the carved wooden masks of Northwest Coast Native American traditions. A grid of these masks is also faintly visible behind the central portrait. Over the woman€™s face Liu has loosely painted a flowering tree branch, with lush pinks dripping from the bark and echoing the bright red paint on her subject€™s lips. The regularity of the gridded masks, with their strong clear colors and hard lines, juxtaposed with the sensuality of the young woman and the tree blossoms, suggests the contrast of those times and these, the imposition of formality and order versus the abstractions of freedom and desire.

€œMadam I€™€™ is much simpler, and has an appealingly quality to it. A seated woman of somber face is set against a golden background with a subtle floral pattern. Liu has repainted her clothing in happy spring colors and surrounded her with butterflies on the wing, fully detailed and articulated. The painted sections making up the butterflies are layered with resin, underscoring their fragility, their elusive nature and their transformative symbolism. While here and there she has added her familiar symbols, Liu has largely foregone the washes and drips on this image. And €œMadam€ remains trapped in her time, unaware of the butterflies flitting around her, still a sad figure despite her new attire.

€œBat Girl II€™€™ strikes a good balance between the complexity of €œVisage€ and the simplicity of €œMadam I.€ Liu has entirely over-painted the face of the young woman, decreasing the historicism of the original black-and-white image. She has employed her dripping technique more subtly than in €œVisage€ and to better effect: the woman€™s hair seems to be melting down her forehead, as if she might disappear altogether eventually. She is surrounded by flying bats and flowers, but they comprise a circular composition that unites the disparate forms. Likewise the colors in €œBat Girl II€™€™ €” largely orange hues €” are more homogenous.

Also included in this exhibition are a few images of children (€œWhite Rice Bowl II€) and of people involved in activity (€œMother and Daughter Menders€). Perhaps it is my prejudice against the ubiquitous, treacly painted portraits of pueblo children, but these feel trite and anthropological compared to the artist€™s more formal altered portraits of adults.

Still, I find Liu€™s work intriguing, for its postmodern appropriation and slickness, but also for the authenticity underlying her efforts. Each of these people had a history we cannot now discover; Liu seems determined to imagine and honor the memory of who they might have been, and what they might have meant, to someone of their time. In her paintings, what was flat, one-dimensional and black-and-white becomes enlivened, dimensional and wildly colorful; thus she rescues the forgotten dead and affords them dignity once again.

Contact Hollis Walker at hwalker259@earthlink.neta.

If You Go

WHAT: €œHung Liu: The Peking Opera€™€™
WHEN: Through Aug. 5
WHERE: Turner Carroll Gallery
CONTACT: 986-9800 or