by Sura Wood
The first thing you sense about Hung Liu's art is its deeply rooted humanity. In some of the 40 large-scale oil paintings in Summoning Ghosts, the first major retrospective of this Chinese-born, Oakland-based artist's work, its presence is stronger than in others, but it's always there, like an insistent, reassuring backbeat. That essential humanity was hard-won. Liu, who emigrated to the US from China in 1984, when she was 36, has a life story that would have embittered and crushed the spirit of a lesser person. It's a story of coming of age under the authoritarian mind-control of Mao's Cultural Revolution, a period when speaking out and self-expression were dangerous to your health; the imprisonment of her father, whose sole apparent "crime" was being an intellectual; and the four years she was forced to spend, beginning at the tender age of 20, in a proletariat "re-education" program of heavy farm labor in a rural Chinese village. But rather than breaking her, those experiences only intensified her resolve to remember her past and revive, through her art, the anonymous souls who perished or were destroyed. She restores their identities and fragments of forgotten personal narratives in mournful, sometimes bitingly ironic paintings that translate the mutable, shifting nature of cultural memory.
Much of Liu's work is based on historical documents and old photographs, many of which are discreetly piled on tables throughout the galleries. She dilutes her paint with linseed oil, and as the washes drip onto the canvas, the present seems to dissolve away, blurring the edges of her photo-realist imagery, lending it the distortion and instability of fading memory. It's a technique the artist describes as "sweet revenge" on the social realist training she received at art school in Beijing. While studying there, she covertly painted Secret Freedom, a group of 27 miniature, bucolic oil landscapes on paper, each representing a tiny act of defiance and subterfuge. Created at a time when the Communist regime decreed that painting for pleasure was corrupt and decadent, she painted one a day to prove to herself she hadn't fully surrendered, and kept them hidden from sight. In microcosm her sensitivity to light emerges, as does a nascent exploration of the exciting properties of color. The paintings foreshadow what burst forth on a bigger playing field later in her career.
Loosely organized along chronological and thematic lines, the exhibition, which opened recently at OMCA, begins with Liu's student sketchbooks, her cherished, dog-eared copy of a Chinese translation of Les Miserables, photographs she took of village farmers in the late 1960s and didn't print until 2010, and early charcoal portraits drawn in her late 20s. Remarkable for their draftsmanship, the latter convey her alertness to the personal qualities of people she encountered, a perceptiveness that continues to characterize her work as she matured.
It was in 1991, on her first return visit to her native country, that Liu made the pivotal discovery that became the basis of her art practice: a cache of historical photographs. Some featured late-19th and early-20th century prostitutes posed in staged studio settings. The pictures were often shot by Western photographers who used automobiles, telephones, and modern Victorian furniture to sell the girls by associating them with Western civilization. Liu adds a feminist subtext and attempts to elevate the status of shunned, shadowy women. In "Madonna" (1992), for instance, she imbues a woman, little more than a girl herself, with Western ideals of beauty and saintliness, while echoing motifs from master works of Western art like the gilt archway that curves over the top of the canvas. The subject looks young, defeated, resigned to her destiny. Here and in other works Liu is particularly attuned to the suffering of women in China, like those assembled for "Strange Fruit" (2001), a gathering of doomed Korean women captured by the Japanese in WWII and forced to serve as prostitutes. Set against a vermilion backdrop, unadorned and subjugated, they form a portrait of sex, pain and powerlessness. Japanese butterflies, emissaries of beauty, dot the surface of the canvas.
Based on a formal photograph of a Manchu bride in Peking, "September" (2001) is an arresting, complex painting of a feminine, sad-eyed, very young bride probably no more than 13, headed for an uncertain fate with a man she likely didn't know or love, and dressed for the occasion in a red tunic crowned with a spray of flowers and feathers extending from her splendid headdress; a Song Dynasty duck protrudes from her neck. Liu may intend a connection between the unthinkable event of planes piercing the steel of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the loss of innocence facing the girl, but the relationship is a stretch. However one reads its meaning, it's a spectacular piece. The layers of associations and emotion, hope and anguish in concert, act on the brain and touch the unconscious, as they do in "Annunciation," painted the same year. Drenched in melon shades, a pair of herons full of life and harbingers of paradise and renewal – one can almost feel the warmth and contours of their graceful feathered bodies – alights near a child, whose hands cover her ears, comforting her before taking flight.
Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu is at OMCA through June 30.