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The Cost of      Catastrophe
Portraits of a Chinese      Past
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Making Waves

Digital Fish
Dancing in the Desert
Ticking down to the      "Big One"
Sixth Sense


Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

Portraits of a Chinese Past


Saving and Destroying the Past

But Kaprow’s “liberation” wasn’t the only gift Liu received in La Jolla; she also met the art critic Jeff Kelley, M.F.A.’85. During 20 years of marriage, they have worked together as an artistic duo, with Kelley publishing books and articles on contemporary art and Liu building a national reputation as one of the country’s most productive painters and printmakers.

“I think what’s really unique about Hung’s work is the way she turns historical photographs into paintings,” says Kelley, today a consulting curator of contemporary art at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. “There’s a tragic dimension to her work. It’s as if she’s struggling to save the past, even as she participates in its destruction. That’s a very modern thing to do, as a painter.

The Kitchen Goddess: This large canvas (six and a half feet tall by 10 feet wide) mixes charcoal, mineral pigments and linseed oil (see "Painting A Goddess" below).

“In a way, I think her work is about the acceptance of the dissolution of history and memory, and the struggle to hold onto something from the past.”

Rena Bransten represents Liu at her influential gallery in San Francisco. “Hung is a unique artist, a fascinating blend of Chinese and American painting styles,” she says. “She’s very much an international figure, with galleries and museums now showing her work in New York, Paris, London and elsewhere around the world.

“I think she’s probably best-known for the ‘veils’ of runneling paint that give so many of her paintings a hazy, mysterious quality . . . creating images that are like aging, fading photographs.”

Emily Sano, director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, which hosts two large-scale Liu portraits, says the key to her “haunting power” as an artist is her “remarkable combination of intelligence and boldness,” when attacking a canvas. “Her skills and her technique are profound, of course,” says Sano, “but what really sets her apart is her humanity. Her portraits of struggling, obscure human beings are deeply affecting. They overwhelm you, and you cannot forget them.”

Now 58, Liu appears to be at the top of her game. Later this year, both the San Francisco and Oakland International Airports will unveil giant-sized murals by Liu that will become permanent features of these frenetic urban landscapes. For Liu, the San Francisco installation will nicely symbolize her amazing life’s journey—since the giant mural (Takeoff!) of a small boy chasing a great white bird is displayed at the same airport where she landed with $20 to her name, in 1984.

Going Away, Coming Home: The panels of Hung Liu's 160-foot window (part of which can be seen above) were fabricated at the Derix Glasstudios in Taunusstein, Germany, and installed at Oakland Airport this summer.

“I love life, in spite of all the tragedies,” she says with a bright smile, “and I still believe in my paintings. I still want to do them, stroke by stroke. As you get older, things become wonderfully complex, wonderfully complicated. We suffered under the Cultural Revolution, yes—but there was also a wonderful innocence there, as we dreamed of justice for everyone.

“Now I live in the West, but that is complicated, too—because I see profound problems with capitalism. So nothing is simple, you see? And I think it becomes very important to keep your sense of humor!”

That sense of humor is clearly at work in Liu’s studio bathroom, where she hung a collage done by a friend. It features a glowering portrait of Mao waving his Little Red Book, along with an image of one of the West’s most popular icons, the Nike tennis-shoe logo. Beneath, a boldface legend declares: READ CHAIRMAN MAO’S LITTLE RED BOOK—JUST DO IT!

“One of the best things I learned from Allan Kaprow was the importance of playfulness, the importance of laughter, in shaping any work of art,” says the high-flying Liu. “I hope I’ve learned that lesson well, and I want to go on making paintings as long as I can—paintings that will continue to celebrate laughter, and love, and life!”

Painting a Goddess

Drop by Hung Liu’s crowded, paint-spattered studio in Oakland, Calif., on a typical weekday afternoon, and you’ll probably find the muralist struggling passionately to “capture a moment of human feeling” on one of her giant-sized canvases.

Today she’s working on the massive oil portrait of an elderly Chinese woman: The Kitchen Goddess.

The stretched canvas is six and a half feet tall, and 10 feet wide, and the half-completed figure—cunningly assembled from charcoal and mineral pigments and linseed oil—vibrates with human energy, as she reaches toward a copper pot in the kitchen of some obscure village in rural China.

“I don’t plan ahead,” says Liu. “I just step up to the canvas and do it. First I draw the figures with charcoal or pencil or pastels. Then I mix the colors with linseed oil, which thins them out and makes them wet and runny.”

Now she steps back 10 or 12 feet, eyeballs The Kitchen Goddess’s half-painted cheek. “I want the paint to look solid, so I put on layers. Like a sculpture. I don’t analyze—no way! I feel it, that’s all. It flows out of my hands. When I am painting, my body has memory, like a dancer.

“If you work long enough, you know what the canvas needs!”

Back and forth she goes, from one side of the studio to the other. Paint and then eyeball. A touch of shadow here, a gleam of light there. The brush licks at the surface of the fabric, sighs against the tightly-stretched canvas. And the old woman, The Kitchen Goddess, is coming alive. “An old woman, cooking something, maybe like my grandmother in Manchuria—her whole life cooking for other people. Who knows?

“I want to paint without expectations. Paint a face, maybe a flower—or just paint light! Huh? Paint like a child. Let it be.”
But sometimes “letting it be” means facing up to human suffering. Another canvas, looming nearby, contains half a dozen Chinese men who are about to die. They were slave laborers, who were forced to work in Japan, toward the end of World War II. Liu found them in a yellowing photograph, deep in the historical archives in Beijing. She did some research, and she learned they were prisoners of war, who had refused to work anymore, and had simply marched together into the sea.

Some were shot to death immediately by their captors; the rest drowned in the waves.

Hung has painted them in gentle sunlight, standing side by side in a field of vivid cherry blossoms and windblown weeds. The doomed Chinese men have now been preserved in paint. The historical photo has become a compassionate vision.

“I am trying to give them a memorial,” she says.

Sometimes, the figures in the painting will tell me: Throw some red here! Put in a bit of sunlight there! And for a moment I wonder: Who is doing this painting? Where is it coming from?

“A memorial offering. Trying to honor them. Everyone from prostitutes to refugees to laborers to children who died young—they all deserve something, they all deserve to be painted. And I want to paint them so big that you cannot look away!”


Tom Nugent is a freelance writer. His last article for @UCSD Magazine was on Tim Roemer, ’79, and the 9/11 Commission.



UCSD's Department of Visual Arts

Hung Liu

Hung Liu's Paintings and the Polity of Immigrants

Full Circle: Revolutions in the Paintings of Hung Liu

Works & Conversations:

Conversation with Hung Liu

"I am trying to give them a memorial...

A memorial offering. Trying

to honor them. Everyone from prostitutes to refugees to laborers to children who

died young—

they all deserve something, they all deserve to be painted. And I want to paint them so big that you cannot look away!"