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Archive for December 28th, 2021


Hung Liu, The Year of the Rat (2021) – this is one of the last portraits she did and it is downstairs in the lobby to lure you upstairs

Friends, readers,

Another woman artist, this time a woman photographer and painter whose work I saw in the DC National Portrait Gallery a couple of weeks ago. The following video where a curator takes you through many of the paintings and photographs in the exhibit, you learn so much about Liu’s life story, the images she made in the different phases of her existence, and hear Hung Liu talking about what she is trying to achieve in general, and what were her aims and circumstances in each of the works she is led to talk about — that the usual blog I would do for a woman artist feels superfluous. Click and see and hear. Hung herself talks in the interview clips of the importance of remembering people, especially to the person who remembers and the one remembered.



This is called Father’s Day: it is Liu with her father — he was taken from the family when she was five, imprisoned, enslaved, treated harshly and strictly for 50 years at the time when she learned where he was, and visited him. He told her that after so many years of such barbaric treatment that he can no longer show emotion.

She was proud of her mother and her grandmother’s stoicism in the face of such hardships:

All the information you need otherwise is provided in the marvelous catalogue book of the exhibition (Portraits of Promised Lands), with three essays and many beautiful plates, which I recommend buying. To be honest, and iconoclastically I think you can have as deep an experience as felt in the galleries, maybe more deep reading this book as going to the gallery. The difference is the size of the images and you have to imagine the thick impasto you eyes register as you gaze.

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Here I just suggest emphases and perspectives, single out the most striking images.

She seems to have derived her passionate devotion to the deeply hurt by society and the vulnerable, and desire to give all her subjects quiet dignity, from the way her family was treated in her early life: her father’s fate (see above) was the result of his having fought in the army of Chiang Kai-shek; the family destroyed all the photographs and memorabilia of their lives they had lest any be interpreted against them. They didn’t flee, rather marginalized themselves, hid their individual identities, and only gradually as Hung’s gift emerged sent her quietly to the best schools and then art college in China available. She had herself to do two years farm work, and traveled, everywhere she saw thwarted and hurt people, she painted, and then later took photographs and painted these in her own distinctive way (the film will tell you of this) within terms of the imposed social realism of China. Like many others in such a situation, she learned much but felt constricted, that she was not fulfilling her art’s potential. They are not just downtrodden people, but people whose identity is at risk, like this one:


Summoning ghosts — the woman is beautiful but she resists us by turning to the side, she is dressing her hair and wearing that outfit to please another

She was both fortunate and her family maintained some good connections (her grandfather had been a scholar and botanist), and was able to travel to the US, go to an art college in California, and become part of the art worlds there. She became a resident artist at Capp Street Project in San Francisco in 1988; she eventually married a fellow art student, Jeff Kelley, who became her curator. She went onto graduate school, became a citizen, a Professor Emerita herself, had a child, a boy. In her earlier life she took many photographs as she traveled around China tracing the changes or just the events and behavior of people working out the cultural revolution. These photographs have to be experienced in the order they are placed in a narrative. In the US she resumed such travels down south (where both white and black, but mostly black lived hard lives), to places Asian people made communities in.

Here are some of these: she identifies with a plow-bough young man (black, living down south),


A plow-boy in the American south

A hopeful African-American woman — see the way she swings dangling feet or shoes


Dangling Feet

She talked with ex-Comfort Women in Korea:


This is from the cover for the book cited above (Promised Lands)

Here is a less well known portrait of comfort women:

There is also a portrait of an aged woman with bound feet, who cannot walk — very distressing in its ordinariness.

Much more hopeful: I love her monumental portraits of children, here are two young ones, the one helping the other to eat. I love the small pictures of small creatures, and how her linseed application visibly drips:

Here are two leaning against a wall:

She has a large portrait very beautiful of a black woman with flowers all around her.

She is famous for painting over or up, the photography of Dorothy Lange, whose perspective is coterminous with Liu’s. So here is Migrant Mother made somehow less grim by the coloration and a slight change in the woman’s expression or face and also making the pair further back in the picture space:

Her Dorothy Lange types are when original with her more poignant, as in this Father’s Arms:

Another too distressing to reprint, but found in Promised Lands is of a half-starved woman, with very narrow breasts, who has a baby clinging to one of her nipples. She is dressed in an undershirt with work shirt over, to her left a sad-faced child, a man who shades his face with a hat, another looking to the right as if far in the distance ….

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I was strongly taken by this exhibit and went back a second time; that’s when I bought the book, the first large art book I’ve bought since Jim died. Hers is a redemptive art. She is paying attention to people others usually only register as a number who needs to be checked off, as it were “visible,” finishing what work they were given: it does not matter if their participation is active or genuine. There are few landscapes alone. Such images were thought very self-indulgent in her early training: consequently they are the circumstances against or in which the person pictured must live or work in most of her images.

But she did a series called My Secret Freedom, which are curiously pastoral, very conventional except for the objects and houses she invents (look at the grey boat):

Individual objects painted in her more usual way, very large, turn up now and again: Blue slippers; a bed; a comfortable desk chair with pillow; a grey phone, titled Telephone January 20, 2012:

This wikipedia article is useful. There are short insightful essays on-line on individual images. We are told of her crucial contributions, given thoughtful descriptions of the art techniques she uses to make her memorable portraits; how she’s summoning and commemorating ghosts

Ellen

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