Gail Severn Gallery



Hung Liu


I paint from historical photographs, usually taken of Chinese subjects by foreigners.  These have included 19th century images of Chinese female “types”, prostitutes, child street acrobats, war refugees, and women laboring at such tasks as pulling a boat upriver, operating an industrial-scale loom, and walking in circles (like mules) behind the handle of a millstone grinder.


As a painter, I am interested in subjecting the documentary authority of historical photographs to the more reflective process of painting; I want to both preserve and destroy the image.  Much of the meaning of my painting comes from the way the washes and drips dissolve the photo-based images, opening them to a slower kind of looking, suggesting perhaps the cultural and personal narratives fixed in the photographic instant.


I also introduce traditional Chinese painting motifs into the photo-based field, hoping to enliven and stir up its surface.  These included images of birds, flowers, stamps, landscapes, among others, all borrowed from Chinese art history and suspended in the paintings. The traditional motifs evoke a sense of the cultural memory underlying the surfaces of history.  In particular, the stylized Chinese birds- some from paintings as old as one thousand years- seem like witnesses from China’s past, overlooking and commenting upon events from its modern era.


Thus, two layers of historical representation- from traditional painting and modern photography- co-exist in my paintings.  The result of this overlay is a liberation of the rigid methodology of socialist realism- the style in which I was trained in China-as an improvisational painting style in which the  photo-realism used in the service of propaganda dissolves into a fresh kind of history painting.  In other words, I convert socialist realism into social realism.


Altogether, I hope to wash my subjects of their exotic “otherness” and reveal them as dignified, even mythic figures on the grander scale of history painting.  I am looking for the mythic pose beneath the historical figure- and the painting beneath the photograph.


Selected Collections

Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH

Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, AZ

Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, CA

AT&T Corporation

Baruch College, William & Anita Newman Library, City University of New York, NY

Boise Art Museum, Boise, ID

City of San Francisco, Public Art Program, CA

Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA

Dallas Museum of Art. Dallas, TX

Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, IN

Kemper Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO

Library of Congress, Washington, DC


Los Angeles County Museum, CA

Mills College, Oakland, CA

Muscarelle Museum of Art, Williamsburg, VA

National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Oakland Museum of Art, Oakland, CA

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA

San Jose Museum of Art, CA

Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA

Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA

Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS

The DeYoung Museum of Art, San Francisco, CA

The Herbert F. Johnson Museum, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

The St. Paul Companies, St. Paul, MN

The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

The Walker Art Museum, Minneapolis, MN

The Whitney Museum of America Art, New York, NY

Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC



The Joan Mitchell Foundation, Inc., Painters and Sculptors Grant, 1998

Fleishhacker Foundation Eureka Fellowship, San Francisco, January 1993

National Endowment for the Arts, Painting Fellowship, 1991

National Endowment for the Arts, Painting Fellowship, 1989

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Gail Severn Gallery