Motifs in Memories: Symbols in Hung Liu’s Art

Throughout history, artists have imbued their works with the language of symbols to deepen meaning, create tension, and provide visual impact. Chinese painting, for example, has a rich history in which works often feature symbolic plants and animals from the natural and supernatural worlds. Chinese-born American artist Hung Liu (b. 1948) employs traditional Chinese motifs in her works on view in the special exhibition Hung Liu In Print, layering and superimposing them upon images of often anonymous figures from history, including 19th-century Chinese courtesans, laboring farmers, and migrant workers.

Hung Liu discusses her works in Hung Liu In Print at NMWA; Photo: NMWA

Liu’s 2005 series “Seven Poses” features layered imagery, frequently including animals that have symbolic meanings within Chinese culture. In one print from “Seven Poses,” a large crane fills the foreground, while a seated woman holds an open fan. The crane can be a symbol of longevity, happiness, and eternal youth. In another image, a woman lies on a couch that melds with the cherry blossom tree branches around her. Beneath her is a white swan, a symbol of grace and beauty.

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

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Hung Liu, Untitled (from “Seven Poses” series), 2005; Digital print on paper, 14 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Greater Kansas City Area Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu

In these works, the aesthetic beauty of the animals is aligned with that of the women, prostitutes who were prized for their beauty, but whose identities outside of their images are now lost. They are re-contextualized and collaged with these recognizable Chinese cultural symbols. When presented without context, they become cultural prototypes. Liu’s layered surfaces and expressive, calligraphic brushstrokes highlight this long process of image change and how a symbol can be meaningful or mostly aesthetic, depending on context.

Left to right: Hung Liu, Sisters in Arms I (State II) and Sisters in Arms II (State II), 2003; Lithograph on paper, 30 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Hung Liu; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Another symbol that reappears in often Liu’s works is the circle. In Chinese writing, a circle denotes the end of a sentence. In Zen Buddhism, the circle alludes to emptiness, wholeness, and the cyclical nature of everything. In Liu’s words, circles are “a kind of Buddhist abstraction.” They cover the surface of Sisters in Arms I and II (2004), works depicting three women at different stages in life. In playful youth or hardened adulthood, they still stand arm in arm. In these detailed lithographs, the circles unite the two images, as well as provide a visual link to the Liu’s oeuvre.

Ultimately, Liu’s depictions of anonymous figures like these prostitutes and laborers are a humanizing attempt to insert them back into the canon of memory. “I communicate with the characters in my paintings, prostitutes—these completely subjugated people—with reverence, sympathy, and awe,” says Liu. By combining them with recognizable and distinct imagery from Chinese culture, she asserts their place in Chinese history.

—Nana Gongadze is the 2018 summer publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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.

Hung Liu: Restoring Memory

Born in 1948, a year before the Chinese Communist party came to power, Hung Liu grew up in an environment that discouraged apolitical personal expression. Although she received training in socialist realism, Liu delighted in painting landscapes and drawing portraits based on photos, both unsanctioned forms of expression under the Maoist regime. It was only when Liu immigrated to America that she began to experiment with art’s potential beyond the realm of realistic representation.

Hung Liu, Shan-Mountain, 2012; Color aquatint etching with gold leaf, 47 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore; © Hung Liu; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Liu’s best-known works are paintings based on historical photographs. Re-creating the images in an enlarged format, she transforms humble documents into large, vivid portraits. Perhaps in rebellion against her training, Liu rejects the rigid realism of Chinese art of the post-Mao era. Instead, she embraces traditional conventions of Chinese painting that value energetic, expressive line work. She uses a restorative process in her work, layering bright colors over the black-and-white original images as well as decorative textures and whimsical forms from classical paintings. She often drips linseed oil over the canvas to create a hazy veil that hints at the muddled refractions of history and memory. By focusing on her subjects, Liu dignifies and humanizes these nameless faces of history. In lieu of capturing their precise historical context, she enhances the mysterious aura lent to them by the passage of time.

Liu imbues unlikely subjects with an awesome presence, as seen in her works on view at NMWA. On a 1991 trip to China, Liu discovered a collection of old photographs depicting unnamed prostitutes. In Shan-Mountain (2012) and Shui-Water (2012) she extracts these women from their source photos and presents them, magnified in scope, in dramatic portraits. Her focus on restoring their integrity as people over restoring the images as historical artifacts indicates a deep engagement with the humanity of her subjects. Once again, her vivid palette not only brings them to life, but endows the women with an air of nobility that suggests they might be royal concubines, or even empresses.

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

The names of the paintings themselves allude to the Chinese name for landscape paintings (shan shui hua, literally “mountain river paintings”) where towering mountains and sweeping rivers dwarf the occupants of the land. Although she imitates the aesthetics of landscape painting, Liu ultimately subverts their focus. Rather than emphasizing nature’s grandeur, she asserts the dignity of these individuals. By blending Western portraiture with Chinese landscape painting, Liu casts her subjects as monumental figures that stand independent of time or place. History may pick and choose who to remember, the paintings seem to say, but the integrity of the human spirit will thrive regardless.

—Xiaoxiao Meng was the summer 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.