The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hung Liu, Chinese American artist who elevated the poor and forgotten, dies at 73

Hung Liu in 1980, when she was a graduate student in Beijing. (Courtesy of Hung Liu and Jeff Kelley)
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Hung Liu, a Chinese American artist who elevated the marginalized people of both her homelands — an impoverished mother, a desperate immigrant, an unseen laborer — in huge works of portraiture that transcended national boundaries, died Aug. 7 at a hospital in Oakland, Calif. She was 73.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said her husband, Jeff Kelley, an art critic and the manager of her studio.

Ms. Liu was born the year before communist leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and she spent the first half of her life living under a regime that would imprison her father for decades and subject her to years of labor as part of her proletarian “reeducation.”

Trained in China in the tenets of socialist realism, an artistic movement that idealized life under communism, Ms. Liu came to the United States in 1984 to continue her studies and developed a deeply personal style that she called “weeping realism.” A hallmark of her work was the use of linseed oil, which she dripped over her canvases, creating the impression of tears.

Many of her subjects were drawn from photographs, a medium that carried intense meaning for Ms. Liu. During the early days of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s brutal bid in the 1960s and 1970s to purify the Chinese Communist Party, Ms. Liu burned many of her family’s photos to eliminate traces of her father, who had served in the Nationalist Army, and other relatives who, as scholars, were regarded by the government as insufficiently working class.

“You couldn’t keep anything personal,” she later recalled. “That is why I am so interested in old photographs. They are rare. It is not like today.”

The photographs that interested Ms. Liu extended from the family photos her mother managed to secrete away and salvage, to images of Chinese villagers, to the Depression-era works of American photographer Dorothea Lange. The subjects of those photographs became Ms. Liu’s subjects, rendered on canvas in grand scale.

“Devoid of platitude or cliche, Liu’s artistic practice was always rooted in history as she transformed marginalized subjects into monumental, heroic, contemporary figures,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, said in a statement after Ms. Liu’s death.

A retrospective of Ms. Liu’s works, “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands,” opened Friday at the gallery. It is the first major exhibition of her work to be presented on the East Coast. The curator of the exhibit, Dorothy Moss, said in an interview that “throughout the exhibition, you get a sense of [Ms. Liu’s] deep compassion for those who have been overlooked or written out of the historical narrative.”

She “makes them the center of her portraiture,” Moss observed, “and in so doing immerses the viewer in their stories.”

In one noted oil painting, “Strange Fruit: Comfort Women” (2001), Ms. Liu worked from a photograph of women conscripted into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. She excised from the original photograph the images of their captors, leaving only the women, with delicate butterflies and pomegranates superimposed on them.

“It shows the tragedy and horror of how these women were violated,” Ms. Liu once explained, according to the Sacramento Bee. “In Chinese art, fruits and flowers are female. The pomegranate is a symbol of fertility. These women were like flowers or ripening fruit plucked before their time. They were ruined by this act.”

The title of the work, she said, came to her as she listened to the Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of African Americans. “All humans,” Ms. Liu remarked to the Orange County Register, “are capable of atrocity, brutality.”

Ms. Liu reimagined an iconic American photograph in her painting “Migrant Mother: Mealtime” (2016), drawn from Lange’s portrait of a despairing farmworker and her children in Nipomo, Calif., in 1936.

“I hope to wash my subjects of their ‘otherness’ and reveal them as dignified, even mythic figures on the grander scale of history painting,” the website Art News quoted Ms. Liu as writing.

She used her own image in “Resident Alien” (1988), an ironic reproduction of her U.S. green card, complete with an enlarged fingerprint and government seal. In the painting, she changed her name to “Cookie, Fortune” and inverted the digits of 1948, her birth year, to 1984, the year she arrived in the United States.

In another work puncturing the notion of America as an idyllic destination for immigrants, the 1994 installation “Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain),” Ms. Liu heaped 200,000 fortune cookies atop two segments of a railway crossroads — a reference to the thousands of Chinese who labored on the construction of the first Transcontinental Railroad.

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“The story of America as a destination for the homeless and hungry of the world is not only a myth,” the National Portrait Gallery quoted Ms. Liu as saying. “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.”

Ms. Liu’s works were exhibited at institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In 2019, a scheduled exhibition at the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing was abruptly canceled. According to Ms. Liu, censors objected to nine works slated to appear in the exhibit, among them a self-portrait that depicted her carrying a rifle at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

“I was so sad and disappointed,” Ms. Liu said told the New York Times. “Of course my work has political dimensions, but my focus is really the human faces, the human struggle, the epic journey.”

She added, “I sincerely feel like all I’m doing is enshrining the anonymous working class who never had a voice.”

Ms. Liu was born on Feb. 7, 1948, in Changchun, in northeastern China, and came of age in Beijing. Her mother was a teacher. Her father, who had served in Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army, was arrested when Ms. Liu was an infant and did not see his daughter again for more than 40 years, when Ms. Liu found him on a rural work farm.

She said she was deeply affected as an artist by her experience laboring in rice and wheat fields during her years of “reeducation.” “We were so poor, but the people who lived in the country had nothing,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “They produced food for us while they were starving.”

Ms. Liu studied art education at Beijing Teacher’s College and became a teacher, also hosting a children’s art program on national television that brought her a degree of fame in China. She later was accepted into the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, where she was trained in mural painting.

After waiting several years to receive a passport, Ms. Liu arrived in the United States for graduate studies at the University of California at San Diego, where she received a master of fine arts degree in 1986. She became a U.S. citizen in 1991 and taught for many years at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

Ms. Liu’s marriage to Li Yougang ended in divorce. Survivors include her husband of 35 years, Jeff Kelley of Oakland; a son from her first marriage, Ling Chen Kelley of Kenilworth, N.J.; and a grandson.

Ms. Liu once commented on the tension between the desperation of the lives she depicted in her works and the beauty she nonetheless was able to draw from them.

“I think it has to be beautiful,” she said, referring to her artwork. “The subject matter is harsh enough. If you try to make it ugly, what does that mean? Badly painted? I want to give back some dignity to these people who are long gone and were never acknowledged.”

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