Veils of Color: Hung Liu

Although Hung Liu (b. 1948, Changchun, China) works in a variety of mediums, her portraits are unified by a unique style characterized by richly colored veils of drip marks—an effect that makes her figures appear as if they are melting or obscured. Liu’s portraits are inspired by old Chinese photographs that primarily depict anonymous individuals omitted from the historical narrative. While her works illuminate these forgotten figures, the drip marks echo the effect of time on photographs and memories. “I create or try to portray and preserve images but also destroy or dissolve them,” says Liu. “This is because there is no way we can fully preserve anything.”

Hung Liu, Winter Blossom, 2011; Woodblock print with acrylic ink, 32 1/4 x 29 3/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

Trained as a painter in China during the Cultural Revolution, Liu was only permitted to paint government-sanctioned subjects in a hyperrealistic style. While studying art at the University of California, San Diego, she expanded her artistic language and explored other techniques, mediums, and subjects. Today, she simultaneously embraces and overthrows elements of realism. While her detailed figures are rendered realistically, drip marks and additional symbolic imagery destabilize her images and create a mystical atmosphere.

Liu achieves her drip marks in a variety of ways. In her paintings, she heavily dilutes her pigments with linseed oil and allows the mixture to flow freely down the canvas as she paints. To translate this effect into her etchings, she drips acid directly onto the copper plate. Her painting and etching processes include a degree of spontaneity. When dripping paint onto a canvas or acid onto an etching plate, she can never exactly predict how the liquids will fall. She relinquishes control and allows gravity and her materials to take over, a stark contrast to the technical precision of realism.

Left to right: Installation view of Hung Liu’s tapestry Rainmaker (2011) and a detail showing interwoven threads; Photos: Kali Steinberg, NMWA

While creating her tapestries and woodblock prints, Liu has more control over the final outcome. She collaborates with a team of weavers to create large tapestries that at a distance look like paintings. Her team weaves together numerous multicolored threads to imitate the drips of her paintings and etchings. To create a similar effect for a woodblock print, Liu carves jagged lines into the woodblock prior to coating it with ink. While these processes are calculated, the intentional drip marks give the illusion of impulse.

To learn more visit the artist’s website, watch a video of Liu working in her studio, and visit the museum to see the special exhibition Hung Liu In Print. Reserve your spot to meet the artist at NMWA on June 6, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the spring 2018 publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Nameless but Not Forgotten: Hung Liu’s Portraits

Who defines history? The established historical cannon focuses more on world leaders, and less on the figures who toil in fields, fight in wars, and help drive important social and political movements. Hung Liu In Print, NMWA’s newest exhibition, features works by Chinese artist Hung Liu (b. 1948) that pay homage to the forgotten individuals who influence history.

Hung Liu In Print at NMWA

Liu is widely considered one of the most important contemporary Chinese artists working in the United States. Inspired by old Chinese photographs of unnamed individuals, Liu imbues her subjects with an air of both mystery and dignity. Her subjects often include farmers, prostitutes, mothers, and refugees. Liu says, “We need to remember where we come from; our history is with us and we carry it everywhere. My subjects in the prints are anonymous people—the ones who fight in the wars and provide food for us. They are not remembered for ‘making history’ as world leaders are, but to me they are the true makers of history.”

Hung Liu, Shui-Water, 2012; Color aquatint etching with gold leaf, 47 x 36 in.; NMWA, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Photo by Lee Stalsworth; © Hung Liu

One of the works in the exhibition, Shui-Water (2012), portrays a young woman kneeling with her hands resting firmly in her lap. The subtly rendered landscape and the delicately outlined flowers on her clothing reference traditional Chinese painting. Like many of Liu’s subjects, the woman depicted confidently meets the viewer’s gaze. Liu’s subject, though anonymous, exudes power and dignity.

Liu grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and witnessed mass famine during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, an economic and social movement that devastated China’s economy. Liu labored in rice and wheat fields in the countryside for four years. Although she studied painting during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, the Maoist regime required that she painted in a realistic style that did not allow for much personal expression. After being denied a passport by the Chinese government for three years, she immigrated to the United States in 1984 to attend the University of California, San Diego to continue studying art. Free from the restrictions of the Cultural Revolution, she developed her own artistic style.

Liu’s distinctive personal style combines naturalism with abstraction. While her figures are rendered with realistic detail, they are often situated in imaginative settings. Her characteristic drip marks are achieved by using a variety of printmaking techniques. For some prints, the dripping effect is created through irregular incisions cut into the wood. For others, she allows acid to drip directly onto the etching plate. Liu simultaneously preserves and dissolves the figures in the images. While the drip marks allude to the fading of old photographs and memories, the vivid colors illuminate her subjects, giving them a voice despite their anonymity.

Visit Hung Liu In Print in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery through July 8, 2018.

—Kali Steinberg is the spring 2018 publications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Betty Blayton

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Idea Waiting to Be Heard (1984)

By: Betty Blayton (b. 1937, Williamsburg, Virginia; d. 2016, Bronx, New York)

Betty Blayton, Idea Waiting to Be Heard, 1984; Monoprint, 30 x 22 in.; Courtesy of the Betty Blayton Trust, Boston, Massachusetts; © Betty Blayton Trust; Photo by E. G. Schempf

A self-described “Spiritual Impressionist,” Betty Blayton created works featuring layered, aqueous colors and elemental forms that invite viewers to reflect. Blayton’s monoprint Idea Waiting to Be Heard (1984) exemplifies her exploratory approach to art as well as her interest in color, texture, and form. Magnetic Fields is the first time that this vibrant work, as well as her monoprint Dream Forms #3 (1984), has been exhibited.

Despite growing up in the 1940 and ’50s in then-segregated Williamsburg, Virginia, Blayton pursued her passion for art at the encouragement of her parents. Blayton later became a founding member of the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1968 and the Harlem Children’s Art Carnival in 1969. The impetus for Idea Waiting to Be Heard came from an art project Blayton often assigned to students at the non-profit art center, instructing them to cut out shapes and ink them.

Although Blayton employed techniques from Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, she noted that her work did not grow out of any particular artistic tradition, but rather the feelings generated by her own thoughts. Blayton said, “The intent of my work is [twofold]: The first is personal, because the act of creating artworks allow me opportunities for meditation and self-reflective thoughts related to life’s mysteries and the meaning of being and becoming. The second is to hopefully provide my viewers with opportunities to also engage in meditation and self-reflective thought.”

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Katie Benz is the 2017 fall digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Howardena Pindell

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto) (1982)

By: Howardena Pindell (b. 1943, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

As a young girl, Howardena Pindell visited a root beer stand in Northern Kentucky with her father. On the bottom of their soda mugs, Pindell found thick red dots indicating the glasses were meant only to be used by people of color. “I see the reason I have been obsessed with the circle, using it in a way that would be positive instead of negative,” states the artist. 

Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto) (detail), 1982; Mixed media on canvas, 70 1/2 x 70 1/2 in.; Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York; © Howardena Pindell; Photo courtesy Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

The dot—a concentration of light and color—became foundational for Pindell’s work. In her early years, Pindell employed a method reminiscent of Pointillism, creating non-figurative works (like her untitled work found in Magnetic Fields) with small, round points of paint that cover her canvases. Later, Pindell switched materials to something much more utilitarian: the hole punch. This allowed her to continue her examination of the circle, but without the restrictions of conventional methods and materials. Producing thousands of round, confetti-like dots from painted paper, Pindell carefully distributes her labor onto the wet paint of her canvases. The effect is an atmosphere of sheer energy.

Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto) is a kaleidoscopic explosion. Mint green paint encrusts multi-colored, hole-punched dots, forming a large, rounded composition. Pindell, a Yale MFA graduate and former associate curator of Prints and Illustrated Books at MoMA, cut unstretched canvas into irregular strips, and then sewed them back together with thick carpet thread to create a rough circle. In doing so, she intentionally breaks the confines of the traditional rectangular painting.

Beyond materiality, the work explores the personal circuits of memory and mapping. Pindell created Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto) after a seven month sojourn in Japan, inspired by the vibrant gardens she could see from outside her apartment window in Kyoto. Punctuated by the collage elements of photos and postcards, the work doubles as Pindell’s attempt to preserve her memory, which was severely affected by a car accident three years prior.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Meredith Hamme is the 2017 fall registrarial intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Mavis Pusey

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Mavis Pusey, Solitude, 1963; Oil on canvas, 46 1/8 x 29 3/4 in.; Beverly A. Berman and Jeffrey K. Backerman Collection, Concord, Massachusetts; © Mavis Pusey/Licensed by VAGA, New York, New York; Photo by E. G. Schempf

Solitude (1963)

By: Mavis Pusey (b. 1928, Kingston, Jamaica)

Mavis Pusey is a painter, printmaker, and educator whose geometric abstractions interpret the vibrant art scenes of New York, London, and Paris. One of Pusey’s earlier works, Solitude (1963), exemplifies her mastery of color and line.

Pusey moved to New York at the age of 18 to pursue a degree in fashion design at the Traphagen School of Fashion. However, after two years of financial difficulties, she left the school, worked in a bridal boutique, and enrolled in fine arts classes at the Art Students League—an institution that accommodated her work schedule. She took courses under the instruction of renowned artists Harry Sternberg and Will Barnet. Barnet convinced Pusey to continue working in painting and introduced her to the works of modern masters. The “energy, rhythm, and movement” in Vasily Kandinsky’s work, in particular, inspired Pusey.

Her interest in design led to her sophisticated use of geometric line and works like Solitude. Before focusing on architectural abstractions of New York’s urban landscape, as seen in Dejygea (1970), also on view in the exhibition, many of Pusey’s works from the 1960s imitated the shape and gestures of the body. In Solitude, stacked gold shapes are connected by black lines in a way that is reminiscent of a seated figure. The artist’s  use of color evokes energy while her use of shape and line ground her composition. Pusey says color sets the “tempo” of her work while the design forms the “backbone.”

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

Katie Benz is the 2017 fall digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Lilian Thomas Burwell

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Winged Autumn (2007)

By: Lilian Thomas Burwell (b. 1927, Washington, D.C.)

Lilian Thomas Burwell’s Winged Autumn (2007) is an amalgamation of Plexiglas, oil on canvas, and carved wood. To construct this work, Burwell cut shapes from clear Plexiglas, heated them until they become malleable, and affixed them to the rest of the composition. Winged Autumn represents a shift away from the heavier materials that characterized Burwell’s earlier large-scale works. Mounted to the gallery wall, Winged Autumn appears airy and weightless. The individual components fused together seem to form the shape of a bird mid-flight, reaching toward what Burwell refers to as “the something in me that shares the something in you.”

When pursuing a project, Burwell rarely, if ever, has a concrete outcome in mind. Instead, she sees art as a “channeling of spirit,” and her finished works reflect her improvisational approach. Burwell’s companion piece in Magnetic Fields, Menageri (2006)—completed a year before Winged Autumn—contains a similarly spirited quality.

Lilian Thomas Burwell, Menageri, 2006; Oil on canvas over carved wood, 20 x 29 x 12 in.; Collection of Cynthia Sands, Washington, D.C.; © Lilian Thomas Burwell; Photo by E. G. Schempf

A D.C. native, Burwell was the founding director of the Alma Thomas Memorial Gallery in Shaw for the D.C. Department of Education, the head of the visual arts department at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and a publications and exhibits specialist for the U.S. Department of Commerce. Burwell’s career in sculpting, painting, lecturing, and writing spans 75 years, and at age 90, she is “still working at what [she] loves.”

According to Burwell, Winged Autumn reflects her personal “sense of soaring into infinity.” Burwell says, “I myself, well into the autumn of my years, am still learning to fly high and higher—my present mantra: living for possibility.”

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Ilayda Orankoy is the 2017 fall publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Deborah Dancy

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Winter into Spring 2 and Winter into Spring 4 (2015) 

By: Deborah Dancy (b. 1949, Bessemer, Alabama)

Created during the seemingly interminable Connecticut winter of 2015, Winter into Spring 2 (and its companion piece, Winter into Spring 4) echoes Deborah Dancy’s desire to see spring colors. Heavy brushstrokes imbue the work with a sense of restlessness and anxiety as Dancy, an artist who paints “color, surprise, absurdity, and encounters with the self,” impatiently waits for the ice of winter to thaw. While a solitary flourish of pink in Winter into Spring 4 indicates the eventual oncoming of spring, the painting remains blanketed in streaks of gray, black, and blue—not unlike an early blossom smothered by an unseasonably late snowfall.

The painting’s gestural brushstrokes—what Dancy calls “tangential entanglements” and “linear demarcations”—are characteristic of her engaging, disruptive style. The dissonance in the intersecting shapes is also characteristic of Dancy’s oeuvre. Her artwork shows that “everyday moments, meanderings, intentional and accidental observations and notations, are best when the beautiful and the disconcerting are combined.”

Dancy also embraces the natural ambiguity of abstraction. Although her works are inspired by her own emotions and experiences, they also allow viewers to contemplate their own relationships to her work. Dancy says, “I make abstract work because I am interested in its ability to operate in a realm in which beauty and tension simultaneously exist without explanation or narrative.” Dancy is “an artist who examines and mines abstraction’s potential to move across mediums and materials as it explores [subtlety] and confrontation.”

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Ilayda Orankoy is the 2017 fall publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Brenna Youngblood

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

YARDGUARD (2015)

By: Brenna Youngblood (b. 1979, Riverside, California)

In the dream-like, mixed-media work YARDGUARD (2015), Brenna Youngblood applies an array of colors, tones, and patterns to create a nuanced composition. In the six-foot-high painting, the artist challenges viewers to make connections and open their imaginations.

Brenna Youngblood, YARDGUARD, 2015; Mixed media on canvas, 72 x 60 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Tilton Gallery, New York, New York; © Brenna Youngblood

A multidisciplinary artist, Youngblood fuses her process of abstract painting with her photographic background to both conceal and reveal meaning. The artist says, “I don’t like to say exactly what something is about, because I enjoy people’s interpretations—what they bring from their lives, their experiences.” This sense of ambiguity is evident in the artist’s stylistic choices and overall technique in YARDGUARD as well as Forecast (2014), also on view in Magnetic Fields.

Youngblood often combines references to artificial objects and nature in her works. In YARDGUARD, the ghostly appearance of a chain-link fence that grazes the edges of the frame is disrupted by splashes of rich color breaking through the center of the composition. Set on a silvery gray background, the surface of the work appears faded and worn. The artist’s use of serene jewel tones is juxtaposed with a forceful application of shimmering, liquid-seeming pigment. Youngblood’s ability to evoke the world around us in YARDGUARD creates shifts in focus and resounding energy.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

Katie Benz is the 2017 fall digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Sunset (1997)

By: Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery (b. 1933, New York, New York)

Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery, Sunset, 1997; Offset lithograph, ed. 8/17, 21 1/2 x 30 in.; Courtesy of the Brandywine Workshop and Archives, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; © Evangeline Montgomery; Photo by Gustavo Garcia

Both of Evangeline “EJ” Montgomery’s works in Magnetic Fields represent and explore memory. While Sunset (1997) captures the burning redwoods in the mountains of California, Sea Grass (1998) depicts the kelp groves and coral reefs surrounding the Catalina Islands—reputedly a favorite cliff-face of California skin divers. To Montgomery, these pieces are “abstractions of life experiences and cultural connections,” flash imprints that blend observation, dialogue, and emotion. Montgomery considers the marks and characters in Sunset and Sea Grass to be a form of universal communication; their content speaks to shared human experience.

Montgomery was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1994, which prevented her from continuing to work in metal as she had in the past. The artist shifted her focus to etching, lithography, and monoprint. Sunset and Sea Grass are both offset lithographs; they involved transferring an image onto an intermediate surface before printing it onto a final sheet. The practice behind Sunset and Sea Grass also affects Montgomery’s presentation of memory—as if in contemplation of the past, each piece is mirrored twice, appearing on the final sheet the same way it was originally etched.

In addition to being an accomplished artist, Montgomery is also an independent curator. Since 1967, Montgomery has organized more than 150 exhibitions in museums, university galleries, and art centers. Montgomery moved to Washington, D.C., in 1980. Three years later she pursued a career with the United States Department of State as a program development officer for the Arts America Program at the United States Information Agency (USIA), specializing in American exhibitions touring abroad. Through her efforts, she implemented successful fine arts programs domestically and abroad. In 2005, Blacks In Government (BIG) established the Evangeline J. Montgomery Scholarship Program, a fund for artists who are interested in working with the government to promote the arts.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Ilayda Orankoy is the 2017 fall publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Chakaia Booker

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Chakaia Booker, El Gato, 2001; Rubber tire and wood, 48 x 42 x 42 in.; Collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Bebe and Crosby Kemper Collection, Museum purchase, Enid and Crosby Kemper and William T. Kemper Acquisition Fund, 2004.12; © Chakaia Booker; Photo by E. G. Schempf

El Gato (2001)

By: Chakaia Booker (b. 1953, Newark, New Jersey)

“There is no separation between who I am and what I do,” says sculptor Chakaia Booker about her artistic process. Booker bends, coils, and cuts rubber tires into innovative sculptures and means of social commentary.

Booker’s work is rooted in her interest in fashion and style. As a child she was taught to sew by the women in her family. Building on this skill, she developed her artistic style by making her own clothing as a teenager. After receiving a BA in sociology from Rutgers University in 1976, Booker moved to Manhattan, where she participated in internships related to ceramics and basket-weaving. She continued to create her own wearable sculptures incorporating found materials. Continuing her artistic pursuits, Booker earned her MFA from the City College of New York in 1993.

In the early 1990s, Booker became interested in old, discarded tires and burnt rubber from car fires in the urban landscape of Manhattan’s East Village. Initially drawn to the tires for their accessibility, she soon realized their artistic possibilities and expressive power. For Booker, the worn nature of discarded tires evokes the lifecycle of humanity and the aging process. The tonal variations of rubber calls to mind the diversity of human identity, while the tire treads reference textile designs and markings from the African Diaspora. Booker also welcomes the perspectives individuals bring to her work. Booker explains, “As an artist, I put the ideas expressed in the sculpture out to the public with my own experience and the audience responds to the work on the basis of their own experience.”

El Gato, “the cat,” possesses a feline quality in its slinking stature. The sculpture’s extensions appear paused, perched, and also relaxed. Booker combined wood with a myriad of bicycle and automobile tires to create an intricate arrangement. The sculpture’s human-like form and scale call to mind the artist’s interest in African motifs and ceremonial headdresses. Such physical characteristics lend a self-referential quality to the work, as they remind viewers of Booker’s process of transforming herself with her wearable art.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Katie Benz is the 2017 fall digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.