Hung Liu is one of my favorite artists. Given the current political climate, I thought I’d post something I wrote about her a few years ago.
Hung Liu (b. 1948)
The Bride, 2001
From the series “Unofficial Portraits”
Lithograph with collage
30” x 30”
Gift of funds from Polly and Mark Addison
CU Art Museum, University of Colorado at Boulder
Born in 1948 and raised in the shadow of the newly-formed People’s Republic of China, Hung Liu experienced an extremely restricted art education because she was trained and expected to create in social realism, a style glorifying the Mao Regime and easily understood by the masses.
Liu discovered and fell in love with photographs of emperors, wives, and their concubines during her education. While she was forbidden to use them for inspiration, these photographs would eventually influence most of her paintings and prints.
Although the people of China favored the new, communist-led People’s Republic, the country shifted toward a socialist regime led by Mao Zedong in 1953. When an antisocialism movement began to rise in the early 60’s, Mao Zedong formed a group of soldiers called the Red Guard, which sparked the violent years know as the Cultural Revolution. Liu witnessed the Cultural Revolution first hand at the age of 18 when she was forced to leave her mother to work in the country’s rice fields as part of the revolution’s re-education effort.
Liu returned to Beijing four years later and began to study art. During this time, she unearthed a collection of photographs. According to Liu, the sad faces in the photographs reminded her of present-day Chinese women toiling at hard labor. She also found the contradiction between these faces and the Regime’s upbeat version of Chinese history disturbing.
The Regime was not amused when Liu began inserting photograph-inspired references into her paintings. Yet she persisted, for her personal experience confirmed the reality beneath the propaganda.
Today, two types of photographs inspire Liu’s work—those taken by foreign tourists in China and those taken by Chinese of themselves. She is known for layering traditional Chinese motifs, such as birds, flowers, calligraphic writing, and segments of ancient landscapes, upon photo-based prints to represent historical tensions. Doing so straddles realism and abstraction, reflects her own dual identity and helps her reconcile her Chinese past with her contemporary American life.
This interweaving of images from the ancient and modern also supports the notion that subjects from one era witness and comment upon those of another, keeps the idea of history open and fluid, and contradicts the Chinese Regime’s rigid perception of it. By including images of traditional Chinese painters, Liu informs her viewers that these painters are not only an element of her personal cultural background but part of a larger aesthetic legacy we all share.
The significance of Liu’s work is found in how eloquently she documents the difficulty of being a woman in an authoritarian society. This eloquence is well-pronounced in her 2001 series titled, Unofficial Portraits, which includes The Maiden, The Martyr, and The Bride. In addition to her trademark inclusion of traditional Chinese motifs, this series illustrates her signature wash technique—layered brushstrokes combined with washes of linseed oil to give an indistinct and drippy appearance. The regimented education she received in China contributed to the development of this technique as she uses it to loosen up the tight realist style.
Liu created Unofficial Portraits in 2001 at Shark’s Ink in Lyons CO, where Bud Shark encouraged Liu to work in just washes, instead of lithographic crayons.
This new aesthetic freedom is reflected in the series’ title. Liu explains that in China, the notion of what is “official” permeates all aspects of culture. By naming these portraits unofficial at the onset, Liu gave herself permission to break the rules.
The resulting prints offer iconic representations of traditional feminine roles, while heroic proportions and shocking color grant them untraditional power.
Inspired by the events of September 11, 2001, only a few months after she had completed The Bride, Liu changed the portrait by substituting the figure’s elaborate headdress with a powerful image of a flying bird diagonally bisecting the composition. The bride thus takes on a universal significance, representing the idea that we have been forced to wed a new era.
Liu’s art shows us it’s possible to survive the trauma of growing up in a rigid and oppressive regime and that art can be used as a mode of personal healing. In her early stages as an artist, her work was enslaved by politics. She then liberated her work and herself by creating images critical of a socialist regime. The Bride epitomizes these ideals by giving power to a minority figure struggling to keep hold of her own identity.