By Peter Saenger, August 6, 2021
As a teenager in 1960s China, Hung Liu knew that family photos could be dangerous. During the
Cultural Revolution, having an elite or educated family background could lead to prison, and Ms.
Liu was the granddaughter of a scholar; worse, her father had fought against the Communists. So
family members saved a handful of pictures and burned the rest. Diaries, too, went up in smoke.
No wonder that throughout her career as an artist, Ms. Liu, 73, has been drawn to vintage photos
as subjects. Her large new exhibition, “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands,” which opens
Aug. 27 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., includes works in several styles
that span her career. There are early landscapes recalling C.zanne or Pissarro, which she painted
in secret to hide them from Communist censors, and a 2006 mural of cranes in flight at the
Oakland, Calif., airport, reminiscent of stained glass. But it’s Ms Liu’s unusual portraits based on
photographs, often elegiac and marked by deliberate streaks veiling parts of the image, that are
the heart of the exhibition.
“Father’s Day” (1994) draws on a photo taken during the artist’s visit to her father at a rural
labor camp, trimming the canvas to the outline of the two subjects so that it almost pops out of
the wall, and deftly balancing the off-center figures with a fragment of antique wooden
architecture. Ms. Liu says the painting evokes the fragmentation of Chinese culture she has
experienced. After years of Communist-mandated “re-education” in the countryside, she studied
art at a leading school in Beijing. But she was determined to leave the country, and after years of
delays in obtaining a passport, in 1984 she went to study art at the University of California, San
Diego. She was in her mid-30s and arrived with about $20 in her pocket.
An early painting shows that, despite everything, Ms. Liu retained a sly sense of humor. In
“Resident Alien” (1988) she turned her green card into a 5 foot-by-7. foot painting, with a few
pointed alterations: Her name became “Fortune Cookie,” while she changed her birth date from
1948 to 1984, evoking both the year she came to America and Orwellian bureaucracies. For the
picture of herself on the card, Ms. Liu used the skills she had acquired studying socialist realism
in art school.
Ms. Liu began experimenting with linseed oil, first using thicker layers of paint and then
washing the canvas with the oil, which takes longer to dry and naturally drips. The linseed
streaks “become reminders of the passage of time. They add a layer of empathy. They create
emotion,” says exhibition curator Dorothy Moss. On Ms. Liu’s website, the style is called
”weeping realism,” and she often uses it for portraits based on vintage photographs.
Often the subjects are outcasts of one kind or another: orphans, prostitutes, an enslaved woman.
But the artist also tries to incorporate images of hope—“blessings,” as Ms. Moss calls them. In
“Refugee: Woman and Children” (2000)—based on a photo of a woman who is carrying two
young children in baskets and may be planning to sell them—the 12-foot-wide canvas is streaked
with Ms. Liu’s signature linseed “tears.” Yet she has also incorporated Buddhist figures, a lotus
blossom and a crane, a traditional symbol of happiness
In recent years, Ms. Liu has expanded her look at outcasts by working with the photos of
Dorothea Lange (1895—1965), the American photographer known for her Depression-era
photos of rural poverty, such as the famous “Migrant Mother” (1936). As Ms. Moss writes in the
exhibition catalog, the trauma evoked in this picture made Ms. Liu recall a story her mother had
told: In a city under siege by the Communists, she saw a woman step into a river and drown
herself, abandoning her baby by the river bank. When Ms. Liu asked her mother if she ever had
it in her to do the same thing, she simply said, “I don’t know.”
For her painting “Migrant Mother: Mealtime” (2016), Ms. Liu took another black-and-white
image from Lange’s “Migrant Mother” shoot and cropped it tightly to focus on the mother and
two children, coloring it with bits of orange, gray and yellow. The effect is to make the picture
both more intense in its grimness and just a bit more hopeful. Ms. Liu told me: “Even if the
people had a miserable life in the past, I want…to honor them, to remember them,” but also, “to
shed new light, to own the subject, if you want to say that.”