Friday, April 5, 2013

Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu

Oakland Museum of California  March 16 - June 30

September 2001, Oakland Museum of California

 "I feel like I'm using my painting as a memorial garden."

         I started to write “The theme of Hung Liu’s work is...” - when I realized that the word “theme” is totally inadequate. It reminds me of essays for English classes, not the lifelong work of a woman whose goal is the resurrection of the dispossessed.
         So many of the peoples of the world experience deprivation and exile. The artist or writer may reinstate them in their old world, describe their suffering, or reshape their identity. It’s one part excavation, one part re-creation. 

        Though she left China and came to study and live in California  in 1982, most of Hung Liu’s dispossessed are, not surprisingly, Chinese. She researched archives to find photos of those who are not even a footnote to history.  Peasant laborers (without the smiles of socialist realism), women soldiers (without the muscles and heroic stance of Maoist art), the poor, the grieving elderly, the 'comfort women' used by Japanese troops during WW II, prostitutes, the exiled, war refugees. 

       “In terms of true inspiration you need to discover, to excavate, to peel off the layers and try to find out what was there that got lost, for there is always something missing.”
   Summoning Ghosts: the Art of Hung Liu, University of California Press, 2012, P. 101

         Hung Liu found photos of young prostitutes. Those photos of anonymous teen-age girls were used as advertisements during the end of the last dynasty. She rescues them from obscurity by painting their portraits with great affinity and affection, and lends them a friendly cow, her symbol of humanity, for companionship.
The Cow and the Girls, 2007 Artnet

        Millions of Chinese were displaced by war and government policy during the twentieth century, and Hung Liu's work focuses, as always, on the human element. I found the painting By the Rivers of Babylon, a portrait of an exiled family, particularly moving. I’ve known the psalm that begins with those words since I was a child:
    “If I forget you, O Jerusalem , let my right hand wither; Let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you,
     if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour.”

       There are so many Jerusalems! So many who have fled ancestral lands, been forced out of homes.
By the Rivers of Babylon, 2000, Artnet

         Hung Liu’s work, however painful her choice of subjects, is beautiful and lush. The painted surface is as multi-layered as life itself,  and the measured, deliberate dripping of paint adds another dimension, another texture. Look closely at By the Rivers of Babylon. Children are eating from colorful Ming dynasty bowls! 

       That imaginal juxtaposition appears in so many of her paintings. A young girl, bent over with heavy burdens, is surrounded by doves, fantastic bird wings, and painted Buddhas. Cranes and blossoms and butterflies surround whores and wounded warriors. It is not prettifying, but a loving adornment of the dispossessed. She holds the opposites: the heron in elegant plumage or the inevitable blossoms of  Chinese art - juxtaposed with poverty and displacement. 
        I was so moved by a series of simple paintings. I wish I had photos for you. Each day the artist painted some object in her mother’s home during the 49 days of mourning after the elderly woman's death. She painted useful objects, like the kitchen tools her mother used every day, each object made eloquent. Hung Liu is a woman who understands the need for ceremony, but she invents rituals for her own soul’s particular journey. 

         And then come the paintings of a flame, one after another. The spirit kept alive. The soul guided by light on its journey. An ancient impulse to light a candle to accompany grief.  One painting, one candle, after another.



  1. Leah, this is beautiful! I definitely need to see this exhibit!

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