Portraits painted from photographs, however the artist applies the paint, always reveal the same recognizable contradictions in time and space. The fleeting facial expression that was caught by the camera in a fraction of a second becomes strangely frozen when worked on over time by the painter’s brush; the small, intimate snapshot becomes an amorphous emotional demand when blown up to larger than life size.
Hung Liu works from photographs, many of them archival snapshots of Chinese subjects from the early 20th century. They have been projected onto huge canvases, traced and worked on with oil paint, using a combination of techniques: a thin wash that runs down the canvas in vertical drips, most evident in the backgrounds; a loose, impressionist manipulation of thick paint on the faces; and a more graphic style of filled in outlines for the superimposed symbols - birds and flowers.
In “Polly Bemis Idaho 1” the face of an elderly, grey-haired Chinese immigrant woman wearing a battered hat has been enlarged to fill a 66” x 66” canvas. She looks pleasantly out to us, as if to the camera. There are white flowers at the bottom left at her right shoulder, and a pink flower at the upper right. Circles have been placed at the other two corners of the picture. The catalog informs us that the white flowers are syringa, the Idaho State flower. The pink flower is the lotus, a Buddhist symbol of purity; and the circles represent a continuous cycle from Taoist philosophy. Without this knowledge, these motifs, however, would seem to be arbitrary and decorative.
What we have here is a Chinese subject painted in a 19th century European style, with embellishments; and this is the appeal of Hung Liu’s work. The facile brushwork, craftsmanship and technique, combined with its realist representation is precisely what most people in the world consider painting to be, or what it should be. Paradoxically, under either a capitalist or communist regime, in matters of art, the majority of citizens are restricted to tastes similar to those of 19th century Europe. And this applies not only to representational painting, but to the novel with its linear plot construction and the gratuitous melodic tune in music. Every attempt to push the general viewer/reader/listener beyond these single track and tidily accessible forms and expressions is met by the middle class purveyor with condemnation as elitist or pretentious. This is because if the cultural doors were smashed open and the idols broken, no one knows what else would be challenged, what new forms our society might take a liking to.
Hung Liu grew up in Communist China and was trained in the European tradition of objective drawing and painting, with its Socialist-Realist application, at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing. She was a professor there from 1981 to 1984, before moving to the U.S. Socialist Realism had been the official art of all communist parties since it was adopted as the line by the Russian Soviet Communist Party in the early 1930s, bringing to an end a very different painting tradition in China where Western linear perspective had always been rejected. Hung Liu arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s, and studied for a master’s degree in San Diego. This was a period of Western art market growth, in commercialized versions of 1970s political art. Art schools were expanding in size and turning away from conceptualism and back to teaching traditional techniques. But most importantly, identity politics had come to dominate sections of the art market, which opened a door to the art world for women and all non-European ethnicities; however, it restricted their subject matter to their own particular experience. Exploring the universal human condition was left to the European male, as always.
In “Refugee: Opera”, a woman is standing breast feeding her baby and accompanied by a crowd of children. It is assumed from the imagery and the title that they are all refugees. Such representations, whether in the mainstream press or on a gallery wall, are useful in a political context of mind control, where sentimentality is used to block the processes of critical thought about the causes for wars and migrations. The individuals depicted are seen isolated and suffering in an unknown wilderness, always weak and dependent, never in control of their own actions or having choices. And that’s why, on this vacant ground between two worlds, the contemporary Western art market and Socialist Realism with its Victorian origins, we can find an artist trained to succeed in Communist China painting these cautious and conformist works which have nicely satisfied both political agendas.