The Past Is Never Dead

Painter Hung Liu embraces the ghosts of the past

Hung Liu’s ghosts traveled with her from Changchun, China, to America’s Deep South, to Oakland. Some are ancient, and some are forever young. In her opening quote for Ghosts/Seventy Portraits, a newly published book compiling and curating some of her work, she says, “When I moved to the West, exactly half a lifetime ago, I carried my ghosts with me. The ghosts I carry are a burden, but also a blessing.”

Editor Bart Schneider, of Berkeley’s Kelly’s Cove Press, grouped Liu’s work into eight sections, reflecting the artistic diversity of the 73-year-old painter, whose work is in collections from the de Young in San Francisco to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He says that upon seeing a retrospective of Liu’s work at the Oakland Museum of California, “I was dazzled at the range of her work, and the astonishing sense of humanity.”

Many, though not all, of Liu’s paintings are based on photographs, which she replicates and then reflects on, dripping linseed oil to “wash” the images in some, adding three-dimensional objects to others. Both approaches feature in the first section of Ghosts, “Cultural Relics.”

In two pictures, Chinese noblewomen of previous centuries gaze out, encased in ornate robes and headdresses. Liu breaks the two-dimensional images by attaching metal birdcages at the robes’ bottoms. In “Family,” based on a photo from the late Ching dynasty according to Liu, the six-member family group is divided starkly by gender. The father stares sternly at the camera, flanked by his three sons, while the mother and daughter are shown in profile. Six green boxes hover next to the images, providing bases for tea cups and a teapot. “The women are demure; they make no eye contact with anyone. I wanted to interrupt the images,” Liu said in a phone interview.

Yet another striking painting—in the section “A Feather in One’s Cap”—depicts a magnificent dead eagle displayed by hunters, its wings spread. The effect is of a crucifixion; the haunting reference, Liu indicated, is to the treatment of Tibet by the Chinese government.

The third section, “Children,” and the fourth, “Workers,” are the first to feature some of Liu’s work inspired by the photographs of Dorothea Lange. Liu saw the iconic “Migrant Mother” many years ago, and in 2015, after a visit to the Deep South, began using some of Lange’s photos as inspiration in her own work. She sensed a deep connection between the poor and displaced people depicted, and her own experiences being raised in Mao’s revolutionary China. 

“I didn’t know what a sharecropper was,” Liu said. “But they were so close to the Chinese peasants I knew. I could smell their sweat-soaked clothes through the lens.” Seeing “Cotton Picker,” which depicts a young worker with a huge bag of cotton, side-by-side with “The Sewer,” a Chinese man pulling a thread that could be cotton, illuminates their common experiences. 

Late 19th- and early 20th-century photos of Chinese prostitutes were used by Liu in the series “Comfort Women,” the book’s fifth section. “I tried to bring them back to life by instilling those young women with a certain strength and dignity they don’t really have in the photographs,” Liu writes in the book’s text.

“Refugees and Migrants,” the sixth section, again reflects Liu’s comments as an immigrant. In “Refugee Opera,” a mother breastfeeds an infant as an older child looks to the ground. In the background is another family group, one member shading her eyes to look into the distance … the future? “We hear them by summoning the ghosts,” Liu said.

The seventh section, “Self-Portraits,” is “ghosts of myself,” writes Liu, including the first image, “Resident Alien,” in which the name on the card shown is “Cookie, Fortune.” “Daughter of the Revolution” pictures Liu, head covered, staring defiantly at the viewer. In “Candle,” she gazes out as the flame brightens her thoughtful face. Is she finding her way, or showing us ours?

Each of the paintings in the final section, “Year of the Rat,” is a diptych, with one half a painting of Liu from a particular Rat Year, while the other is a drawing she did that same year, reaching all the way back to 1948. She intends, she writes, to make another one in 2032, “if I’m still around.”

A major retrospective of Liu’s portrait-based paintings will take place in September at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and an upcoming installation at the de Young will also feature some of her work.

“Ghosts/Seventy Portraits,” Kelly’s Cove Press, 2020. $20, www.kellyscovepress.com.

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