Rainbow: In Memory of Hung Liu
Walter Maciel Gallery, Los Angeles
Through March 5, 2022
Written by David S. Rubin
Hung Liu (1948-2021) was at the height of her career when, last August, she died just a few weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In July, Liu had launched a much heralded exhibition at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and, only twenty days after her passing, she became the first Asian American woman to open an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. In a fitting tribute to the artist, Walter Maciel and Liu’s husband, art critic Jeff Kelley, have selected some stellar paintings, two tapestries based on Liu’s paintings, and an inspired memorial-themed grouping of works.
Born in Communist China during the Mao Zedong regime, Liu was separated from her father at an early age when he was sent to a labor camp. Of necessity, she and her mother fled her native Changchun for Beijing where, at age twenty, Liu was assigned to four years of field labor. During this time she secretly took up painting and photography, activities that were forbidden by the government. Bouncing back from her travails, Liu studied at Beijing Teacher’s College and The Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where she was trained in socialist realism. In 1984, she overcame obstacles to obtaining a passport and moved to San Diego to study with pioneering performance artist Allan Kaprow and feminist art historian Moira Roth at the University of California. Ultimately Liu ended up in the Bay Area, where she taught at Mills College for several years before retiring.
As a painter, Liu is best known for figurative works that merge the socialist realist style in which she was trained with more contemporary approaches, such as her signature technique of heightening a painting’s emotional content by allowing streams of linseed oil to drip across its surface, resulting in what she termed a “veil of tears.” Derived from historical photographs of Chinese people and Dorothea Lange’s Depression era and Dustbowl photos, Liu’s subjects include anonymous women, children, laborers, migrants, refugees, orphans, and prostitutes, figures she considered often overlooked “lost souls” or “spirit ghosts.”
Two outstanding paintings in the current exhibition focus on the hardships of Chinese women during World War II. In Making Shoes for Soldiers (2000), Liu’s characteristic drips create a soft atmospheric space in earthy colors in which she wove together a photo-derived scene of 1940s female laborers making soldiers’ shoes, Chinese calligraphy and seals, and a horse image, a zodiac symbol that has a number of mythological meanings in Chinese culture. Over this she meticulously painted Neolithic era Chinese bowls from the Imperial Palace in a contrasting hyperrealist style. Taken together, these elements remind us that these poor underprivileged women came from a rich heritage where, had they lived in other times, they might have been wealthy.
Twelve Hairpins of Jinling (2011), based on a World War II photo of an air raid drill, depicts twelve schoolgirls wearing gas masks. Below them is a painted horizontal band containing a Zen circle flanked by two hairpins, which in China were traditionally worn by every woman, regardless of class or social standing. Although intended as an antiwar statement, this striking painting feels very timely in light of present day controversies over the wearing of medical masks, which are less constricting than gas masks.
Liu poetically exhibits sympathy for less fortunate Americans in her tapestry Dream Catcher (2017), which is based on Lange’s black-and-white photograph of a young girl fetching water from a river during the Great Depression. By enlarging the scale of the imagery, rendering it in luminous colors, and adding clouds reflected in the river, Liu turned a sad image into one filled with hope and optimism.
At the heart of the exhibition, of course, is the memorial within a memorial. When Liu’s mother was hospitalized in China with pancreatic cancer in 2011, the artist began a ritual of making a small commemorative painting a day, each based on a photograph of an object in her mother’s Beijing apartment. Among the subjects are uneaten food, empty chairs, a shower stall, bedroom slippers, a telephone, and other objects that are integral to everyday life. When her mother died on the thirty-fourth day of the project, Liu painted three paintings: the first is of an electronic monitor with a flat green line, the second features an expressionist black blotch, and the third show a gray Zen circle over black paint. The paintings that followed are all of burning candles viewed from above, a sequence that ended when Liu ran out of canvases, which serendipitously was on the one-year anniversary of her mother’s passing. In recontextualizing the series as a memorial to Liu as well as to her mother, Maciel and Kelley arranged the paintings like a timeline broken into sections, with groupings of eight mounted over wall-painted bands, each a different color of a rainbow, only softly muted. One of the Chinese meanings of the name ‘Hung’ is, in fact, ‘rainbow’ and the ashen palette reflects Liu’s preference for earthy colors.
Candles also appear in two of three short videos that Liu created in 2013. Although Liu is known primarily as a painter, her videos possess a transcendent quality reminiscent of works by Bill Viola, but without the monumentality or elaborate production. In Between Sky and Earth, Liu organized symbols relating to death, spirituality, and mourning into a sequence of five grids. In each module, the imagery—which moves from dead bird to a dead deer to a Buddha’s hand citrus fruit to clouds in the sky to burning candles—rotates, shifts, and flickers before us like repeating breaths or heartbeats. In Black Rain, Liu treated a slowly moving vista of dark clouds like one of her paintings, allowing streams of black paint to flow from top to bottom across the entire screen. The most mesmerizing of the videos is Red Candle, where a burning candle set against a black background solemnly melts away, only to be replaced by another candle going through the same process. In watching this, it is easy to lose our sense of time, focus on the very nature of existence, and consider the possibility of reincarnation.
Walter Maciel Gallery
2642 S. La Cienega Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034