schools and slowed production, she was nonetheless affected by their deleterious and widespread ramifications. These were ominous times for nearly everyone, including Communist officials already in power. The Cultural Revolution authorities, those in part responsible for the chaos, advocated the burning of books in private and public collections; archives, paintings, sculptures, and architecture were also fair targets for attacks.
ordered to perform the unthinkable: to forget their personal and
national histories . . . .
Liu's profound understanding of the intractability of history, and the necessity for thinking it through as a way to deal with the calamities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is no doubt attributable to her experiences as a child and young adult. Working from documents that were meant to be destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, Hung Liu creates paintings endowed with the survivalist spirit of memories that could not be erased. Her canvases are painted evocations of history, usually inspired by forgotten photographic imagery -- the results of hours spent mining archival resources in the United States and China.
Hung Liu creates paintings endowed with the survivalist spirit of memories that could not be erased.
Perhaps Liu is most widely known for her paintings of anonymous, turn-of-the-century Chinese prostitutes with bound feet. Odalisque depicts one such woman reclining on a Western-style settee in the European tradition. An image of commodified womanhood couched in the accoutrements of a distinctly Western taste, Odalisque highlights in an expressive, painterly fashion the dynamics of intercultural communication. However, it is more than a document of cultural hybridization.
An image of commodified womanhood couched
in the accoutrements of a distinctly Western taste, Odalisque
highlights in an expressive, painterly fashion the dynamics of
Liu was born in Changchun, Manchuria, in 1948, one year before the founding of the People's Republic of China. That same year her father, Xia Peng, then a captain in Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist army, was banished to a prison labor camp by Mao Tse-tung's Communist party.
Liu's images of reclining
prostitutes illustrate China's changing conception of its own
culture, as well as that of the West, at the turn of the century.
In 1981 Liu was accepted by the fine arts department of the graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, but was unable to matriculate until 1984, when she was finally granted a passport by the Chinese government. For those three intervening years she was, in her own words, "some kind of abstract artist who never showed up."4
She was forcibly separated
from her family and friends and sent to the countryside for ideological
reeducation . . . .
As in most Communist countries, the only officially sanctioned style was socialist realism, which limits artistic expression to representations of the moral horizons of the masses as defined by the political agenda of the party. In order to practice her own art -- landscapes that she executed outdoors with a portable painting box -- she had to act in secrecy, stealing away when she could to explore the whims of her imagination and intellect. To this day, she almost always refuses to work from live models -- a tenet of socialist realism -- choosing to use photography instead; the choice gives Liu the satisfaction of a personal revolution every time she paints.
was, in her own words, "some kind of abstract artist who
never showed up."
The intention here is not to reduce Liu's formative experiences to the maturation of a longing for freedom, nor her recent art to the mere expression of that desire.7 Rather, it is to highlight what Liu has so poignantly called her "crisis of cultural collision," a conflict near the core of her experience as a world traveler and cross-cultural innovator, which has provided her with the material and means to create an impressive body of artwork since her arrival in the United States.
Liu's experiences in America have impelled a radical change in her initially unencumbered, theoretically formulated vision of what it meant to be "free." Without the support and direction of government patrons, Liu has felt the burden of freedom and its accompanying responsibility. In the United States, she has been asked to invent new visions, unique interpretations, and to submit to the demands of being an artist in a capitalist economy. Here individual expression is not a privilege but a right -- the consequence of the gift of freedom. It is also a requirement for staying afloat in the highly competitive art educational system and marketplace.
In order to practice her
own art -- landscapes that she executed outdoors with a
portable painting box -- she had to act in secrecy . . . .
Liu's art questions what it means to be a Chinese American, or for that matter an American, without submitting to the possibility that either of these appellations could refer to just one thing. Liu states, "Over time I realized that I didn't have to combine my Chinese past with my American identity. They could co-exist but the tension, the collision would always be there."8
I shifted my art work from socialist realism,
the style in which I'd been trained, to social realism; and it
transformed my personal identity crisis to a crisis of cultural
As a group, the paintings exhibited in "American Kaleidoscope" can be seen as an attempt to pursue the full range of Liu's, and our, American potential. They vary in subject matter from the historically Chinese to the experiences of European immigrants. Children of a Lesser God is the product of research Liu conducted on the history of Baltimore's Chinese community while she was preparing for her 1995 solo exhibition at the Contemporary, an imaginative art forum in Baltimore whose installation space changes location with each exhibition. A story of the work and hardship associated with immigrant life, the painting describes the harsh reality of child laborers in a canning factory in Canton, a Baltimore neighborhood in which a thriving canning industry was located during the first half of the century. It is no coincidence that Canton was also host to Liu's solo exhibition organized by the Contemporary, which was installed at the site of the former Canton National Bank.
Canton was named after the port in southern China by Captain John O'Donnell, an eighteenth-century trader who established economic ties between Baltimore and Asian countries.9 Lisa G. Corrin, curator of the Contemporary, writes in her essay about Liu's "Can-ton: The Baltimore Series" that, about a century after O'Donnell's death, "some locals began pronouncing the neighborhood 'Can-Town,' because of the many canneries that became the area's main industry, a twist which delighted Liu."10
Liu's experiences in America have impelled a radical change in
her initially unencumbered, theoretically formulated vision of
what it meant to be "free."
Although not exhibited in "American Kaleidoscope," Customs is another painting central to Liu's research on U.S. immigration, which was also executed for her show in Baltimore. Inspired by two historical photographs, Liu's work depicts a female immigrant of ambiguous European origin entering the United States through the port at Baltimore, and a young Chinese man entering through Angel Island at San Francisco. Both submit themselves to thorough physical and verbal examinations. This juxtaposition of immigration on the East and West Coasts elucidates what was often the dehumanizing experience of crossing the nation's borders. Liu presents a vision of America that does not discriminate between immigrants according to their race or cultural orientation. However, by dint of the throngs that entered this country each day during peak periods of immigration, this lack of discrimination often devolved into an insensitivity toward cultural difference -- a kind of cultural blindness -- metaphorically represented here by the participants' obscured vision throughout the picture.
Blindness is a form of denial. For many immigrants, entering the United States involved the painful violation of their privacy -- the woman on the left is having the inside of her eyelids examined -- just as it ignored their individuality. Names were often simplified or changed for the simple reason that they could not be understood.
Over time I realized that I didn't have to combine
my Chinese past with my American identity. They could co-exist
but the tension, the collision would always be there.
Children of a Lesser God concerns a form of child abuse that exists to this day in sweatshops and other illegal work environments across the country. Baby King, one painting from Liu's recent "Last Dynasty" series, is about a different kind of child abuse. Baby King depicts Pu Yi, the last emperor, who was named heir to the Chinese throne in 1908 at the age of three by the Empress Dowager Ci Xi. Wrenched from his family as an infant, and from his wet nurse as a teenager, then manipulated by the Japanese in World War II as the puppet emperor of Manchuria, Pu Yi spent his life adrift in personal and political currents well beyond his control. This indefatigably sensitive portrait shows the emperor at age seventeen, with the burden of an entire nation resting on slight shoulders that barely support his heavy, decorated costume. On the eve of his marriage to two women and still unable to tie his shoes, he seems overcome by the fear of an uncertain future. This image, subtly yet thoroughly critical of the glorified abuse it represents, bespeaks Liu's Chinese heritage. But it also speaks to the pain of lost childhood everywhere. Like the painterly drips that shroud the faces of the anonymous children in Children of a Lesser God, Pu Yi appears as if behind a veil of tears, a testament to the ineffability of lost innocence.
In The Ocean is the Dragon's World, a painting of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi recently acquired by the National Museum of American Art, the full-frontal pose of the sitter is an intentionally exaggerated example of grand court portraiture.
Children of a Lesser God . . .
layering of ethnic communities and the integration of cultural
differences unique to the American experience.
Considering the opulence of the empress's backdrop (the peacock feathers, for instance) and the overtly calculated formal arrangement of the subject taken from a documentary photograph, historically bound interpretations can be inferred from Liu's mysterious, self-dissolving surface. About her "Last Dynasty" paintings, the artist has stated:
I am trying to emphasize the decorative abstraction of the photographic settings as well as the figure/ground relationships between those settings and the people being photographed, since they were arranged almost like abstract elements in a formal composition. These are relationships of power, and I want to dissolve them in my paintings.12
All historical imagery suffers a certain wear and tear over time, in the actual physical sense and conceptually, as ideological currents are exposed and interpreted. By employing linseed oil in excessive amounts, Liu exposes her paints to the chance effects of gravity, causing them to drip, and offers a visual metaphor for the time-bound processes of physical deterioration and historical disclosure.
For many immigrants, entering the
United States involved the painful violation of their privacy . . .
just as it ignored their individuality.
Five Eunuchs depicts the empress dowager before her seventieth birthday, flanked and carried by a phalanx of eunuchs. These men were sold to the court by poor and lower-class families, then castrated in order to serve the imperial family. Histories tell of the political resourcefulness of eunuchs, who, despite being deprived of their biological manhood, sometimes acquired great power as government officials since only they were permitted as personal servants to the emperor. The two eunuchs at the front of the imperial train, Cui Yugui on the left and Li Lianying on the right, were famous for their ability to manipulate the dowager.13 While a great number of eunuchs are pictured as escorts, Liu inserts only five cigar boxes -- containers of dismembered eunuch "status" -- into the surface of the canvas.
relationships of power, and I want to dissolve them in my paintings.
Although devoted to the elite and bizarre population that inhabited the Forbidden City, Five Eunuchs, like Children of a Lesser God and Customs, is heir to Liu's socialist realist training. Each of these paintings probes the identity of the anonymous ones, exploring how a story can be written or painted about those who have been erased from historical consciousness. However, in contrast to socialist realism, which could never resolve this dilemma because of its refusal to recognize the individual behind the veneer of "the masses," Liu's aesthetic mission for more than a decade now has been defined by a persistent search for the content behind the surface. This not only signifies a break from her training, but also from major styles of late twentieth-century Western art, such as post-painterly abstraction and Pop Art.
In a recent conversation, Liu stated that there are no labels on the aluminum cans that adorn Children of a Lesser God because their content is not important. Is there more than a negligible difference between tomato or chicken noodle soup, canned asparagus or creamed corn?15
Each of these paintings probes the identity
of the anonymous ones, exploring how a story can be written or
painted about those who have been erased from historical consciousness.
Perhaps no painting more poignantly illustrates Liu's zealous refusal to let the self-perpetuating cycle of historical anonymity subsume her personal project of recovery than Father's Day . A week before Father's Day, 1994, Liu learned from a friend that her father was still alive and living on a labor farm near Nanjing. On Father's Day she flew to China and, two days later, arrived in Nanjing.
Liu's aesthetic mission
for more than a decade now has been defined by a persistent search
for the content behind the surface.
Jonathan P. Binstock
1. Hung Liu, quoted in Mary-Katherine Nolan, "NewPainting Teacher Challenges Students," Mills College Weekly, 5 October 1990, 6.
2. Jung Chang, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), 283.
3. Bernice Steinbaum, "Once Upon a Time. . . ," in Memories of Childhood . . . so we're not the Cleavers or the Brady Bunch (New York: Steinbaum Krauss Gallery, 1994), 9.
4. Hung Liu, "Interview with Hung Liu," by Janet Bishop and John Caldwell, Society for the Education of Contemporary Art Award (SECA) (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1992), n.p.
5. Hung Liu, quoted in Nolan, "New Painting Teacher Challenges Students," 6.
6. Hung Liu, quoted in Moira Roth, "Interactions and Collisions: Reflections on the Art of Hung Liu," an excerpt of a larger essay published on the occasion of Hung Liu's solo exhibition "Sittings," at the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery, New York, in 1992.
7. Thanks to Lisa G. Corrin's recent essay, which poignantly warns against reducing Hung Liu's work in this way. See Lisa G. Corrin, In Search of Miss Sallie Chu: Hung Liu's "Can-ton: The Baltimore Series" (Baltimore: The Contemporary, 1995), note 1.
8. Hung Liu, quoted in Roslyn Bernstein, "Scholar-Artist: Hung Liu," in Hung Liu: Year of the Dog (New York: Steinbaum Krauss Gallery, 1994), 9.
9. Corrin, In Search of Miss Sallie Chu, 4.
11. Hung Liu, conversation with the author, 17 September 1995.
12. Hung Liu, artist's statement on the occasion of her 1995 solo exhibition, "The Last Dynasty," at the Steinbaum Krauss Gallery, New York.
13. My gratitude to Hung Liu for this bit of knowledge and for providing me with the book that reproduces the photographs that inspired Five Eunuchs, Baby King, and The Ocean is the Dragon's World. See Liu Beisi and Xu Qixian, eds., Exquisite Figure-Pictures from the Palace Museum (Beijing: Forbidden City Publishing House, 1994), figs. 16, 41, and 2.
14. Historian Mary Anderson writes, "To be promoted to a higher grade, [a eunuch] was obliged to first display his emasculated parts and be reexamined by the chief eunuch." If a eunuch did not still own his emasculated parts -- they might have been lost or stolen -- he could be promoted only by purchasing ones from the eunuch clinic, or by borrowing or renting. Thanks to Professor Frederic Wakeman, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at University of California, Berkeley, for this citation from Mary M. Anderson, Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1990), 309.
15. Hung Liu, conversation with the author, 17 September 1995.