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Hung Liu’s Offerings at the Mills College Art Museum and Summoning Ghosts at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) offer complementary but distinct selections of works, thus avoiding the potential redundancy of two closely timed exhibitions in Oakland, California. The more intimate exhibition Offerings showcases her explorations in installations that employ recurrent metaphors for journey. Contrastingly, Liu’s retrospective Summoning Ghosts nicely chronicles her evolving imagery and processes for more than twenty-five years. While Liu clearly possesses an affinity and dexterity with paint, more surprisingly, the exhibitions highlight her explorations in mixed media, shape, and installation. Additionally, the exhibitions’ complicated mix of wordplay, imagery, styles, and approaches reflects her artistic hybridity as well as her attempt to reclaim the past, while embracing its mystery.
Juxtaposing ancient Imperial Chinese scroll painting and myths with imagery from the more recent past, Liu blurs the boundaries of historical periods to probe a more expansive cultural memory. In Strange Fruit, Comfort Women (2001), Liu depicts ten women, many with their faces and eyes lowered, in order to address the Japanese enslavement of Chinese and Korean women during World War II as sex workers. Contrasting with the sepia-toned figures, simplified versions of two bright Song dynasty butterflies and a caterpillar float above the women, suggesting transformation and flight. Additionally, in Towards Penglai Paradise (2002) Liu layers stylized Song dynasty flowers and birds over naked men as they row across a sea toward Mount Penglai, a mythical base for immortal beings. Through allusions to Imperial scrolls and myths, Liu addresses a larger Chinese history and interjects escapist and serene beauty upon raw and harsh imagery.
In contrast to her Imperial-era references, Liu revisits Socialist Realist themes from the Communist Party’s control of the arts and culture of China. Like the former Soviet Union, the Chinese government embraced Socialist Realism as a new art form representative of its revolutionary socio-economic system. In S-wan Quan Lake, Red Detachment of Women (1995), Liu paints two militaristic dancers with red collars and arm bands leaping across the image while one aims a rifle and the other clenches a baton over her head in a gesture derived from The Red Detachment of Women (1964), a celebrated ballet that depicts the liberation of a peasant girl and her rise in the Communist Party. The National Ballet of China was at first strongly influenced by the Soviet Union, to the point of staging the Bolshoi Ballet’s revered Swan Lake for its first production. In Liu’s title she combines Swan Lake and Quan Lake (the location of The Red Detachment of Women) to acknowledge the cultural exchange between the two nations. Moreover, Liu suggests narrative similarities, such as transformation, between the two ballets. Also representative of Socialist Realist ideals is Liu’s Happy and Gay series (2012). While stylistically divergent from her other work, this series addresses Communist party control on culture by mirroring the simplified style and imagery of the children’s primer books of her youth. In addition to teaching children to read, the books illustrate model behavior, like mothers and fathers happily going to work in the fields and factories. Liu refrains from critiquing the inaccuracy of these depictions, where in reality farm and factory workers were sometimes forced into grueling labor, particularly in the “re-education” camps of the Cultural Revolution. Liu’s use of Socialist Realist themes presents the tension between reconciling the abuses of state propaganda and her personal experiences with these same cultural icons.
In addition to presenting Liu’s range of imagery, the OMCA show chronicles her development of thick painterly brush strokes and drippy glazes. In earlier pieces like Family (1990), Liu paints the figures with loose yet elegant brushwork, while aqueous washes dissolve or suggest the background. In later works like Dirge (2002), Liu diminishes focus on the foreground by treating figure and ground equally with washes and bold brushstrokes. In Dirge, Liu paints an Imperial-era musician with solidly defined black outlines and bold colors whose back disappears to reveal a field of painterly gesture. Rendered with more concern for pictorial depth, shirtless males engage in manual labor. Fusing two distinct images and styles, the drips running through the layers break down the figure-ground relationship. Liu’s thickly gestured brushstrokes assertively declare her hand in the process of making, while through her glazes she surrenders to a serendipitous process of unmaking. In relation to her imagery, her brushwork alludes to a desire to make the past tangible and present, while the drips suggest the obfuscation and intangibility of memory.
The OMCA exhibition also highlights the development of Liu’s layered iconography, punning, and the relationship between objects and images beginning with early works where she treats contrasting elements as distinct. In the diptych Tang Ren Jie (Tang People’s Street) (1988), the left panel depicts a grayed and loosely rendered image of a woman walking down the street. Contrastingly, on the right side Liu vibrantly paints a detail from the Tang Dynasty Ladies Wearing Flowers in Their Hair (attributed to Tang Dynasty painter Zhou Fang). The numbers “618–906” (a reference to the dates of the Tang Dynasty) and “Sacramento” float across the top of the two panels, while below them Liu paints the Chinese characters for Chinatown, which literally translate as “Street of the Tang People.” In addition to the imagery, Liu places temple money (which is customarily burned in veneration for one’s ancestors) on the floor beneath the paintings. The objects and images, while individually treated, have a relational synthesis that creates an homage to those who have come before Liu, both in China and the United States.
In works like Apple Shrine (1993) Liu continues her wordplay and juxtapositions, but excitingly begins integrating three-dimensional objects within the picture plane. Deviating from the standard rectangular format for paintings, Apple Shrine, with its curved top (almost like a Romanesque window), suggests the canvas’s objectness. In the painting, a woman dangles an apple on a string while a man grasps it with his teeth, like a variation of bobbing for apples. In addition, a ceramic glazed apple sits on a shelf attached directly to the canvas. The painted and ceramic apples echo and contrast with each other to create ambiguities in pictorial space and dimensionality. The ceramic apple and shelf, alluding to the food offerings left at shrines, are reinforced in the work’s title. Apple Shrine illustrates Liu’s continuing exploration of the relationship between words, object, and image as integrated elements.
The Mills exhibition features examples of Liu’s expanding vocabulary of shape and installation. In Chinese Shrimp Junk I and II (1994), the three intricately shaped canvases operate as individual objects, while installed at an imaginary horizon line on a large uninterrupted wall. The larger two shrimp junks, while roughly the same size, are painted from different vantage points and flank a smaller and more simplified boat. The relative scale and placement of the canvases imparts a pictorial composition to the piece. Less successfully, in Red and White (1993), installed at the museum entrance, Liu depicts two large martial arts figures in combat poses. Although the canvases almost hold each other at bay, the piece lacks the architectural framing and compositional complexity of Chinese Shrimp Junk I and II.
Also featured in the Mills exhibition is Liu’s installation Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain) (1994). It consists of two full-scale intersecting railroad tracks covered in a mound of fortune cookies. Referencing the Chinese workers who helped build the U.S. railroad system, especially in the west, the golden mound of fortune cookies rather literally speaks to the economic aspiration of immigrants. Contrasting with the crude iron and wood railroad tracks, Liu’s pile of 200,000 fortune cookies interrupts their individual fragility and transforms them into a massive sculptural presence. Most interestingly, Liu breaks from her narrative-driven painting to pursue the more conceptual approach of employing the material and cultural associations of found objects.
Oscillating from being rather literal to obscure, Liu’s wordplay and image appropriation reflects her work’s complex cultural hybridity. Even if some of Liu’s layered references to Chinese history and art may be obscure, the paintings clearly portray a sense of loss and memory. The two exhibitions demonstrate Liu’s masterful handling of paint in individual works while also creating an exciting view of her process over the years. Through continued experimentation, Liu has reconfigured her artistic practice while struggling to clarify her larger historical and cultural contexts. With the radically changing ideologies and policies of the Chinese Communist Party, official perspectives on Chinese history and culture are being reconfigured. Moreover, in immigrating to the United States, Liu’s relationship to China has transitioned from a more internal to a more external perspective. Her unique history has forged a cultural dexterity, evidenced in her iconographic, stylistic, and linguistic engagements.