The effect of that four-year stint as a “sent-down youth” can be seen everywhere in “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands,” the retrospective now at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s palpable in Liu’s style, but also in her compassion for her subjects — who range from members of her own family to refugees, farmworkers and women forced into prostitution.
Eventually, Liu was allowed to leave China to study at the University of California at San Diego. She stayed in the United States for the rest of her life, dying in Oakland, Calif., in August. She was involved in the planning of this exhibition, the first by an Asian American woman at the museum, only to succumb to pancreatic cancer just a few weeks after it was diagnosed.
That Liu continued to depict people from her family’s and her homeland’s past is hardly surprising. More intriguing is that the artist didn’t quite abandon socialist realism, the official style she was taught at Beijing’s Central Academy of the Arts. Liu altered realist renderings with surface effects, whether dripping linseed oil over the finished picture or adding sketchy, brightly colored lines that follow the contours of facial features. But the authorized Communist mode of representation is never entirely masked.
One of Liu’s best-known paintings is “Resident Alien,” an outsized rendering of her own U.S. permanent resident card in which her name has been replaced by “Cookie, Fortune.” (Such cookies are widely associated with Chinese restaurants, of course, although they’re likely of Japanese origin.) More personally, the card lists her year of birth not as 1948, the actual date, but as 1984, the year she arrived in the United States. Both are her birth years, Liu suggests.
That picture is grouped with others of Liu and her family. The artist worked from photographs to reconstruct her own life, and later used photos to portray lives that were geographically, if not spiritually, far from her own. Among the foretellings of artistic careers are “Little Artist,” in which her toddler son draws with chalk, and “Avant-Garde,” derived from a photo of Liu as a uniformed young Maoist. She’s carrying a rifle, but its barrel is painted with the flickering colors of a Monet sunrise.
Such playful touches abound in these pictures, some of which are on shaped canvases that outline the contours of their subjects or their settings. A few paintings incorporate found objects, such as the broom next a portrait of a woman whose feet were deformed by binding. While the broom exemplifies the drudgery of domestic work, on the figure’s other side is a painting of a ceramic vessel with an erotic scene, representing a different sort of expectation for women.
Less successful are additions that are apparently meant to be auspicious, such as the butterflies Liu painted atop “Strange Fruit: Comfort Women,” a group portrait of women enslaved for sex by the Japanese military during World War II. In this country, at least, butterflies are too common a beautifying touch to be read as anything more than decorative.
A recent set of paintings is based on Dorothea Lange’s photos of impoverished U.S. agricultural workers during the 1930s. These pictures, which by coincidence include a portrait of African American artist Carrie Mae Weems’s uncle as a boy, are far from autobiographical. Yet Lange’s sent-down (or kept-down) laborers clearly resonated with the Chinese American artist’s own experience.
The oldest pieces are three highly literal charcoal portraits made in the early 1970s, demonstrating Liu’s skill before she resumed her education. These hang near drawings that are also realistic, save for one thing. “Where Is Mao?” depicts the Chinese autocrat in a variety of photo ops, including meetings with President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In all the pictures, Mao is recognizable but faceless. If Liu could never entirely leave the Cultural Revolution behind, she was able to symbolically obliterate its architect.
Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands
National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW. npg.si.edu.
Dates: Through May 30.