Strange Fruit: New Paintings by Hung Liu
March 8 - May 4, 2003
Strange Fruit: New Paintings by Hung Liu features thirty of Hung Liu's monumental paintings from the past five years. Many works are drawn directly from the artist's studio and are shown for the first time in this exhibition. The artist's life history-in China and more recently in the United States-predetermines the layers of content and formal approaches found in her work. She has called these paintings "pastiches of style and clashes of cultures."
Liu was born in China in 1948. In September of that year, in the midst of the revolution, her family fled their home and her father was then arrested by Communist troops and interned in a labor camp. Forty-six years would pass before Liu saw him again. Just as she was about to graduate from high school in 1968, Liu was forcibly "reeducated" as part of the Cultural Revolution and was sent to pick rice and wheat in the countryside for four years. She eventually returned to her studies and trained in the style of Soviet-derived Social Realism at China's prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.
Liu's formal training in Beijing permitted drawing only from life and she was prohibited from using photography to capture that life. The training also strictly limited the way in which artists were permitted to paint. Liu has likened the constrained, figurative painting process to a paint-by-numbers formula with rules dictating anatomical dimensions and color combinations.
Liu, rebelled against these strict controls, and while in China, secretly used photography as an aid in her painting. Liu was permitted to move to San Diego in 1984 to further her studies. She arrived at a moment when figure painting was enjoying a revival in this country, and expanded upon the use of photographs in her work. She pursued another masters of fine arts at the University of California at San Diego, where she felt that she could push beyond the Social Realism of her training to find her own voice. Able to give free reign to her creative impulses, she developed a style that combined historic Chinese imagery, personal symbolism, and expressive paint surfaces.
Personal items such as photographs were forbidden during China's Cultural Revolution, and Liu's own family destroyed most of their family photos out of fear. As a result, Liu creates many of her paintings from anonymous photographs of historic China, many of which were taken by early 20th century Western visitors. Her fascination with history and photos, particularly with reclaiming the lost histories of nameless women, has been strongly influenced by the losses she and her family suffered. While many of her paintings depict daily life, others portray restrictive Chinese social traditions.
Liu enhances these subjects through expressive, multiple layers of paint, allowing for chance encounters in the way figures emerge through dramatic drips and veils of glaze. Narrative and symbolic, her paintings refer to her own history and at the same time leave room for interpretations. "I like the ambiguity of what's happened," she says. "The layers of meanings. That's why I use washes and layers to break down surfaces." Liu's layers and drips add gravity to her paintings, suggesting veiled memories and the poignancy of tears. Utilizing both Eastern and Western abstraction, Liu turns to Chinese calligraphy as well as Abstract Expressionism to inform her approach.
Although Liu's imagery is drawn from her Chinese heritage, her themes are more broadly engaging. Children and families, work, and everyday life are primary subjects. Representations of women also prevail. Whether prostitute, bride, warrior, or mother, these are not nameless, insignificant personages of history-each is an individual. Her paintings speak of adversity, war, poverty, and perseverance and transcend boundaries of gender, culture, or race to become profoundly meditative on the universal human condition.