Hung Liu stridently interrogates history and its whitewashing in her exhibit “Summoning Ghosts” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
The Chinese-born artist’s work does summon “ghosts,” bringing the dead and the willfully forgotten into view.
One of the most compelling works in the exhibition, which was organized by the Oakland Museum of California, is “Mu Nu (Mother and Daughter),” from the Kemper’s permanent collection. The roughly 7-by-11-foot painting shows two women hunched over, ropes tied around their waists, pulling a boat. They walk along a line of rocks that divides a stream. Their labor and discomfort must be intense.
Painted from a photo, the two women are depicted in washed-out grays, while the background landscape contains more vibrant colors.
Like “Mu Nu,” Liu’s enormous paintings are mostly painted from 19th- and 20th-century Chinese photographs depicting the disposed: refugees, laborers, prostitutes, former leaders, soldiers, exiles and prisoners.
Liu paints the images with a mixture of thick creamy paint and runny drips, creating pictures that have the hazy, indeterminate feeling of the old photographs.
In 1948, as the Chinese civil war was nearing its end, Hung Liu was born in Changchun, a city under siege by the communist forces of the People’s Liberation Army. Liu and her family were forced to leave in search of food. Her father, an officer of the Kuomintang, was captured and imprisoned.
After the war, Liu and her remaining family returned to Changchun. Growing up in the People’s Republic of China, Liu witnessed the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, during which she spent four years in “proletarian re-education,” working in rice fields. Liu drew pictures of farmers and took photographs. She entered school to learn art and was host of a popular Chinese television show, “How to Draw and Paint.”
In 1979, Liu was accepted to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and graduated from the academy in 1981. She began teaching at the Central Academy and applied to the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1984, Liu was given a passport to attend college at Berkeley. She married American writer Jeff Kelly, met artists like Allan Kaprow and Robert Rauschenberg and became an American citizen in 1991. She taught at Mills College until 2012.
During these years in America Liu became the internationally renowned artist that she is today, exhibiting in America, Japan and beyond.
Away from the rules of the Chinese government, Liu began working in a manner in direct contrast to the Cultural Revolution tenets of “Destruction of the Four Olds” — old customs, culture, habits and ideas.
Liu’s paintings draw from photographs that show many of these — Confucianism, the reign of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the Great Famine, the Tiananmen Square incident and even aspects of the Cultural Revolution itself.
In “Strange Fruit,” a line of unhappy women appears in front of a rich red background of butterflies and caterpillars. The painting is made from a photo of the “comfort women,” Chinese women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. While the original photo contains Japanese soldiers, Liu has obscured them with her background. Today, the history of comfort women is still a contentious topic.
Liu’s title, “Strange Fruit,” refers to the famous Billie Holiday song, in which the lynched corpses of African-Americans are described as “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. ” A similar dehumanization and objectification was forced upon the comfort women.
Other works in the exhibition are more autobiographical.“Resident Alien” shows Hung Liu’s green card. Her name is replaced with “Cookie, Fortune.”
The term resident alien is a designation of the U.S. government, but here Liu challenges the paradoxical term. Is one a resident or an alien? The name Fortune Cookie refers to how the fortune cookie is an entirely American invention and is not found in China. It too is a “resident alien” of sorts.
In conversation with Liu about her relationship to China and America, Liu said that “In China they censor political things, but here in America they censor sexual things.”
After leaving China in the 1980s, Liu would not exhibit her artwork there again for more than a decade. At a recent exhibition there, the Chinese censors impounded one painting. “Great Leap” shows young nude boys jumping into a river.
The work’s title refers to the Great Leap Forward, the failed agricultural policy that led to massive famine. The official reason for impounding was the painting’s “pornographic nature.” Is this not the epitome of political censorship, when even the idea of political censorship is censored and replaced with the acceptable Western notion of sexual censorship?
At Sherry Leedy
More large-scale paintings by Liu were on view recently in “Tilling the Soil” at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, where the work continues to be available.
While the show’s themes and motifs were similar to the Kemper exhibition, many of the works at Leedy were made using thick, clear layers of resin. (Some will continue to be on view.)
The resulting effect creates layers of paint, casting shadows onto the layers beneath them and giving the images a slick, glossy appearance and substantial depth.
“Falconer I” depicts a young concubine from the final days of Imperial China alongside a magnificent falcon perched on an ornate stand. The falcon is bound to its pedestal by shackles and a gold chain. Similarly, the young woman wears gold bands around her wrists, which are held in front of her, almost as if she is in handcuffs.
A striking contrast exists between the girl’s meek downward gaze and the piercing eye of the falcon. Both are symbols of status and power, yet only the young woman is aware of her enslavement.
“Protect the Crops” shows two children tilling crops in a garden. Each wears a bright red scarf, indicating membership in Young Pioneers of China, a largely mandatory youth organization run by the Communist Party. A sign planted in the garden reads “protect the crops” in Mandarin.
The Young Pioneers existed to instill values of hard work and community in young Chinese students and to indoctrinate them in communist thinking. But it was also a means of getting children to identify with relationships beyond their families, as the family relationship was strongly associated with the old Confucian ways. Liu compared the movement to Nazi Germany’s Hitler Youth.
Throughout many of these resin paintings Liu paints thick circles over the top of the imagery. The circles relate to the Zen calligraphic practice of painting circles that symbolize emptiness and fullness, and to Liu’s experiences learning calligraphy as a schoolgirl.
After Liu turned in a page of calligraphy, her teacher would circle a character on the page with red ink, indicating that it was the best on the page. Liu uses her circles to draw a viewer’s attention to elements of her paintings. Often these circles are in unusual places, circling a portion of the background, an elbow or foot.
As with her Kemper show, there were no apolitical abstractions here, no vague conceptual notions. Like her experiences, Liu’s art stands apart from much of what’s produced in the American mainstream, enriching our understanding of the world.
▪ “Hung Liu: Summoning Ghosts” continues at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., and Kemper East, 200 E. 44th St., through Jan. 11. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. Free. For more information: 816-753-5784 or www.kemperart.org
▪ “Hung Liu: Tilling the Soil” continues at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, 2004 Baltimore Ave., through . Hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment. For more information, 816-221-2626.