Hung Liu had many talents. She was a painter, photographer, video maker, and a printer. Since 2006, several of her paintings have been chosen to be woven into tapestries. In 2004 she attended the Tamarind Workshop at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, established in 1960 to advance the art of printmaking in America. There she developed a unique style of printmaking that involved layers, also in her paintings. Hung Liu won in 2011 the SGC International Award for Lifetime Achievement in Printmaking.
“Dandelion with Mallard” (2016) (32’’x31’’) (monoprint with hand leafing and hand coloring) is from a series titled Drifters. On a road trip with her husband in the summer of 2014, Hung Liu began to photograph dandelions. Large paintings from the series are titled by location: “Deadwood,” “Little Big Horn,” and “Mt. Rushmore.” Hung Liu appreciated the fact that dandelion seeds are migratory, they cross all earth and water barriers, and then multiply in new lands. The painting and prints depict dandelions past their prime, their blossoms going to seed. Their life is ending but is regenerated by the seeds.
The familiar Hung Liu circles and drips continue in this print. She also adds a brightly colored Mallard duck, in Chinese tradition a symbol of prosperity, abundance, and good luck.
Hung Liu visited the Oakland County Library in California in 2015 to study the archives of Dorothea Lange and the other photographers of the WPA (1939-43) who documented the Great Depression in America. “Migrant Mother” (2015) (66”x66”) (oil) was one of the first of many paintings and prints in Hung Liu’s exhibition American Exodus. She commented,“This landscape of struggle is familiar terrain, reminding me of the epic revolution and displacement in Mao’s China. Only, now I am painting American peasants looking for the promised land.”
Although the Dorothea Lange image is familiar to most viewers, Hung Liu said she finds “true inspiration…to discover, to excavate, to peel off the layers and try to find out what was there that got lost, for there is always something missing.” In “Migrant Mother” the face is the same as Lange’s photograph, but the poses of both mother and child are slightly altered, and a background is added. The figures are placed in a room, its dreary grey-brown color resembling a tent, not a house. A kerosine lamp and a bowl are placed on the table,
To offer hope in an atmosphere of despair, Hung Liu has painted a pink square on the wall, and the image of man’s hand holding a bouquet of freshly picked daisies. Daisies are an international symbol of purity and innocence. They represent new beginnings, and they bring joy. She said, “We can adopt each other’s children, so why can’t we adopt each other’s ancestors.”
“Tobacco Sharecropper” (2017) (monoprint with silver leaf) (33”x33”) depicts a barefoot and bare legged little girl helping her father pick tobacco. Hung Liu’s introduction of metal onto the surface of the print achieves a unique multicolored, mirror-like surface that reflects light. Her art education in China included painting of Russian Icons where precious metals, particularly gold leaf, were layered onto the image to increase its spirituality. Hung Liu’s inclusion of silver and gold leaf serve the same purpose. The images of the past are not lost, but brought back from history and preserved for the future.
Hung Liu states: “With this new body of paintings, I would like to summon the ghosts from Dorothea Lange’s brilliant [black and white] photographs…I personally identify with Ms. Lange’s photographs since I am myself an immigrant from China and was caught up in wars and famines…forcing my family to migrate elsewhere. As an American citizen, I am very passionate about how painting American subjects remind me so much of those of my homeland.”
An exhibition of Hung Liu’s work was scheduled to open on December 6, 2019, at the Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. The exhibition was abruptly cancelled in November. Hung Liu had agreed to remove a few of her paintings that were considered too controversial, but the reason for the cancellation was suspect, permits to bring her work into China were denied. In an interview with Art News (2019) Liu stated, “The message is anti-war so I thought it was OK. When I talked with my Chinese artist friends about it, they just said one word: Hong Kong.” Hung Liu held a cancellation party on the day the show was supposed to open.
“Sanctuary” (2019) (72”x72”) (oil with gold leaf) depicts a Mexican mother and her baby boy. Hung Liu’s concern for immigrants included those Mexican, Guatemalan, and Central American migrants arriving in large numbers at the American border. She visited the Texas border and talked with and photographed many migrants. The expression on the face of this mother displays a mixture of emotions: joy, thankfulness, relief, and many more. Previously, Hung Liu painted Madonna-like figures in different forms, both Chinese and African American. In “Sanctuary,” Hung Liu placed a solid gold leaf circle behind the woman’s’ head. It is a reference to the Virgin Mary, to the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe, to the halo always around the head of the Buddha, and it represents the sun and hope.
Hung Liu retired from Mills College in 2014, but she never stopped working. She died on August 7, 2021 as the result of pancreatic cancer. She was 73 years old. She was an internationally respected and beloved artist, and her work was exhibited in over fifty solo exhibitions. Memorial exhibitions continue to be scheduled world-wide. Her paintings remind us that everyone, no matter the race, religion, or place in the world, should be respected and honored. Having come from an authoritarian country, she loved American democracy. She remarked: “The story of America as a destination for the homeless and hungry of the world is not only a myth. It is a story of desperation, of sadness, of uncertainty, of leaving your home. It is also a story of determination, and—more than anything—of hope.” (Hung Liu, 2017)
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.