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Remembering Hung Liu at JSMA

"Remember This: Hung Liu at Trillium" at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon showcases a suite of hybrid prints and paintings. The exhibition is equally an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the artist's remarkable career.

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Install view of Apsaras at “Remember This: Hung Liu at Trillium”
Hung Liu, Apsaras, 2012. Mixed-media quadriptich. Gift of Artist Hung Liu and Trillium Graphics/David Salgado

In 2018, artist Hung Liu (1948 – 2021) and David Salgado (1949 – 2018), master printer and founder of Trillium Graphics, invited Anne Rose Kitagawa, Chief Curator of Asian Art at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, and then Museum Director Jill Hartz, to view the work that Liu had produced at the Trillium Graphics studio in Brisbane, California. Salgado had helped Liu to develop a “hybrid process” combining printmaking and painting. Kitagawa says they went to the studio with the hope of purchasing a single artwork. Instead, Hartz and Kitagawa were asked if they wanted the whole collection.

Kitagawa remembers being overwhelmed. She says, “It felt like a proposal.” Of course, they said yes to the offer. 

“Remember This: Hung Liu at Trillium” was designed to exhibit and commemorate those 55 artworks that were donated to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.  This exhibition, however, equally celebrates the artist’s life and career. Liu passed away unexpectedly in August of 2021, two weeks after being diagnosed with cancer. 

Kitagawa, and current JSMA Executive Director John Weber, expected Liu to speak in conjunction with the opening of her show in February 2022. The artist was set to discuss how she came to America to study art, landing at the University of California, San Diego because a friend, who was not an artist, was there and said she’d heard the school had a good art department. Then, though she was accepted in 1980, it took four years for her paperwork to be processed. When she arrived in San Diego in 1984 she found an MFA program that was highly experimental. In other words, the opposite of how she’d been trained at China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, where she majored in mural painting and learned to paint in the style of social realism.

Hung Liu, Village Portrait: Children of the Water, 2012, edition 5/9, Mixed media 
Gift of Artist Hung Liu and Trillium Graphics/David Salgado

Instead, Weber and Jeff Kelley, both of whom were grad students at UCSD in the eighties, gave the lecture about Liu’s road to America in March 2022. Weber was in the room when her application was being viewed by people in the department, but was gone by the time she arrived. Jeff Kelley, an art critic and curator, was Liu’s husband. The discussion, narrated by Kitagawa, is a behind-the-scenes look at the artist whose compassion for her fellow humans seemed to know no bounds.

Liu’s multimedia work at the JSMA is the product of 15 years collaborating with Salgado at Trillium Graphics. He helped her to work with prints of earlier paintings so she could manipulate them in new ways, and also created the layers of resin which she would work on at his studio. The result is brilliant, with light subtly being reflected between layers. 

White Rice Bowl (2014) is identified as multimedia, as are all the artworks in the show. It is inspired by a 19th century photograph of a child feeding her younger brother. The children are portrayed in a style that reflects Liu’s training as a realistic painter. Further painting is added in layers, on top of the resin plates that Salgado created. Other images that have been painted in White Rice Bowl are a plant, a bird, and gestural brushstrokes of color.   

Hung Liu, White Rice Bowl,  2014. Mixed media. Gift of Artist Hung Liu and Trillium Graphics/David Salgado

The central subject matter in White Rice Bowl though, are the children. One helps another to eat—to survive. That’s the way Liu thought about picturing people eating, as showing them trying to survive. She says so in a remarkable video produced by KQED Spark in which she skims through old or vintage photographs of people she doesn’t necessarily know, but has already painted. Looking at a picture of someone eating out of a bowl, she says, “This peasant doesn’t have a face. The bowl just covers his face in order to survive…It’s just an amazing image to me. It reminds me of what a famous poet said. He said, ‘I have lived many lives, some of them my own.’ I sometimes felt that way.” 

In the video, Liu looks at a photograph of a woman. “I’ve lived her life,” she says. Then she gestures to children in a photograph, “I’ve lived these children’s lives.”

Thirty- nine paintings are on view at Barker Hall at JSMA, but more of Liu’s art is displayed along stairwells, the Soreng Gallery of Chinese Art, and in the lobby. The museum presents 53 works in all. Each artwork can be seen as both a commentary on the perils of being human and as an object of great beauty.  

Apsaras (2012), the museum tells us, is named after Buddhist heavenly beings. Their presence connotes “passage to a higher realm” and in the painting, these female spirits fly out of the cave temples of Dunhuang. The painting speaks to Liu’s training as a muralist, as it’s composed of four panels arranged horizontally across a wall. The horizontal orientation equally connects to the time Liu spent in the Gobi desert while in art school studying cave paintings in Dunhuang. 

The central subject is an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that happened near Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, that left millions homeless and killed nearly 90,000 people. A painting depicting Chinese people enduring great suffering, as Apsaras does, would have resulted in punishment had Liu made it in China. Artwork made in China had to show people happy, even when working in the fields or in the face of disaster.

Liu herself was sent to work in the fields. It happened just as she was graduating high school. As part of the Cultural Revolution’s effort to “re-educate” people, she labored for four years, with just one day off a year, before being able to go to art school. During those four years though, she took pictures of her friends and the peasants who lived in the country. Mixed-media works based on Hung Liu photographs taken in the countryside (circa 1968-72) is a collection of nine portraits from that time.

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During Kelley’s talk about his late wife’s moving to America from China, it’s revealed that Liu studied at UCSD with–of all people–Allan Kaprow. Kaprow is one of art history’s avant-garde celebrities, best known for his invention of  The Happening. From Kaprow she must have learned that she didn’t have to paint in any one style. In fact she didn’t have to paint at all. 

In the eighties and nineties she created installations and paintings that referenced her status as an immigrant. The monumentally large painting Resident Alien (1988), now at the San Jose Museum of Art, replicates her U.S. Resident Alien card, though with a few changes. She renamed herself “Cookie, Fortune,” which Kitagawa tells me was a reference to a derogatory slang used to describe Chinese women. It was also meant to be tongue-in-cheek, as Liu found the fact that she was an alien (like ET) funny.  

Liu changed the date of her birth in the painting of her Resident Alien card too, to reflect the year she arrived in the States: 1984. In 1994 she continued to use the theme of fortune cookies as a medium and metaphor for cultural experience in Jiu Jin Shan: Old Gold Mountain, an installation piece containing a pile of 200,000 fortune cookies. 

Hung Liu, Fortune Cookies, 2013. Mixed media icosaptych (set of 20), 10×10 inches (each). Gift of Artist Hung Liu and Trillium Graphics/David Salgado

Fortune Cookies, a series of 20 small canvases from 2013, is on view at JSMA. It revisits the theme of her fake Americanized name, painted four years after she came to the U.S., though paints the cookies this time, rather than using the real thing. 

The cookies, and the paintings, look as if they’ve been glazed with gold; a color, says Kitagawa, which symbolized for Liu the idea that immigrants may find wealth and good fortune in America (as an immigrant too, my father jokingly told me we came to America because he heard there was gold on the streets).

Volumes can be said about Hung Liu’s work. I haven’t even mentioned her use of Chinese symbols, for example, or perhaps more famously, the combination of realism and drips that make her paintings and multimedia work instantly recognizable. A combination of realistic presence and symbolic gesture that feels like you are seeing people in the process of being forgotten, or who would be forgotten if Liu hadn’t painted them.  

It is her subject matter though, focused on issues that concern immigrants and negative stereotyping, that make Liu’s work so powerful and of the moment. Using art for purposes of social commentary is almost expected nowadays, but Liu created artworks that questioned authoritative texts from the beginning of her life as an artist in the United States—1984—the time of “her birth.”

It was her goal, Kitagawa says in the exhibit, “to restore dignity to sitters by making lavish, beautiful likenesses.”   

“Remember This” is about all those people Liu painted, often strangers with whom she identified. But it’s also about the incredible empathy she had as an artist. You hear it in the way she talks about painting her subjects in the KQED video, when she browses through black and white photographs. Mostly you see it in the way she treated them in her art; surrounded by color, lush backgrounds, and references to history and culture, even when those things were not in the photographs from which she worked. She makes these additions, like Kitagawa says, to restore her subjects’ dignity, whether they are sitting on a pile of rubble or trying to get the last bit of food out of a bowl.

Ester Barkai is a freelance arts writer. She’s written for The Magazine in Santa Fe, New Mexico and for Eugene Weekly in Eugene, Oregon. She got her start working for publications as a fashion illustrator in Los Angeles and then New York City. She has worked as an instructor teaching a variety of art history, drawing, and cultural anthropology courses.

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