By Lenore Chinn. Posted Sept. 8, 2021.
Words alone cannot express the bittersweet sadness at the untimely passing of our beloved artist and friend, Hung Liu.
On the eve of what would have been a crowning achievement to her illustrious career with the opening of a solo show at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands,” our dear Hung joined the ancestors.
This is an unfathomable loss to her family, Jeff Kelley and son, Ling Chen Kelley, and to her arts community.
I first met Hung Liu many years ago through her mentor and fellow art professor at Mills College, Moira Roth, who passed recently, and her good friend, artist Flo Oy Wong. Through them I became acquainted with her burgeoning body of work, starting with an exhibit I saw at San Francisco’s #1 Embarcadero Center, Sky Deck on the 41st floor in 1996.
“The Long Wharf” included seven of her paintings inspired by archival photographs of maritime ships in the San Francisco Bay during the gold rush years. On view were small displays of architectural fragments and artifacts from the era, recalling a time when Chinese shrimp fishing junks plied the waters.
Hung’s method of researching historical photographs would become a lifelong strategy as she mined vintage black and whites for her canvases, translating and recreating visual narratives that gave dignity to her subjects.
Influenced by her own experiences in China during the tumultuous upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, she surreptitiously rendered and saved a series of small studies, portraits and landscapes done when she was sent to the countryside for “re-education.” Using a camera given to her by a friend, she also learned to photograph daily village life. All of these efforts would have been deemed contraband by the government with severe repercussions had they not been concealed.
Resisting the edict of what was considered acceptable in style and subject matter to create she managed to survive that period and went on to study at Beijing Teachers College and received her Graduate Degree in Mural Painting from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1981.
After numerous attempts to secure a passport from the Chinese government to travel to the United States she was finally granted permission and in 1984 she enrolled in the M.F.A. program at University of California, San Diego. Studying under conceptual artist Allan Kaprow she was introduced to new and liberating ideas which would spark innovative approaches to her art.
Hung would also meet her future husband, art critic, curator and studio manager, Jeff Kelley, during her time there.
For me as an artist, a painter and photographer, I would be hard pressed to pick just one or two favorites in Hung Liu’s expansive body of work. Paintings, works on paper, mixed media, sometimes with a bird cage attached, or installations with thousands of fortune cookies, would be employed in her arsenal of ideas. Her works were at once insightful and transgressive in illuminating the hidden stories of subjects largely absent in the public’s consciousness here and in China.
Familiar images from formal portraits staged for the Qing Dynasty’s Empress Dowager Cixi, shrouded in mystery and interpreted from a Western orientalist and othering point of view, can be seen with less noble personages, reimagined and empowered in Hung’s sweeping narratives. Even the gaze, typically deferring to a male perspective of female subordination, has been subverted.
Layered in dripping linseed oil washes and thick layers of brightly saturated paint, her canvases were populated with symbolic Chinese metaphors, circles, birds and flowers, insects, codes of resistance and perseverance, carriers of peace and blessings, and harbingers of hope.
She often confessed to resurrecting “ghosts,” laborers, women who toiled in the countryside and migrant workers made visible by photographer Dorothea Lange during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s and 1940s. Lange’s photographs from the archives of the Oakland Museum of California would become another inspirational source for Hung’s paintings.
On a visit to Art Market San Francisco in 2018 at Ft. Mason I caught a woman standing mesmerized in front of a wall featuring a painting by Hung, “South – Gold” (2018) and a three watercolors on paper, “Companions” (2017), “Rural Slum” (2016), and “Field Break” (2016). I captured this moment and sent it to Hung.
I enjoyed encountering Hung’s works and there were ample opportunities in my travels.
San Francisco International Airport boasts several pieces at Gate A5 (“Take Off,” 2006 – 2008) and Oakland International Airport greets travelers with a magnificent glass mural of flying cranes, “Going Away, Coming Home” (2006) and two paintings reproduced on a small scale, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” and “Sisterhood,” an image later used for a 2020 Census Billboard with text in Chinese. Hung shared a photo taken by a friend of that one installed on Bayshore Blvd. in San Francisco.