Throughout history, exploitation of women has been customary in China. In the paranoid Mao Regime in which Hung Liu grew up, an individual’s rights were subordinated to the interests of the State, very like a continuation of the Emperor-ruled China of the past. These realities of history converge with Hung Liu’s personal history to make her art a haunting paradigm of women’s experience past and present.
Born in 1948, she was a high school senior when she, along with thousands of other educated Chinese citizens, was forcibly “re-educated” as part of the disastrous “Cultural Revolution.” Hung Liu was sent to pick rice in the countryside for 4 years. When she was allowed to return to Beijing, she earned a BFA degree in 1975 from the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Art. In 1984 she was permitted to emigrate and in 1986 she earned a MFA degree at UCLA San Diego. Since 1986 she has been on the faculty of Mills College, California, and presently Chairs the Department of Painting.
In China she had been ordered to paint “Tractor Art” (pure realism glorifying the Mao Regime and easily understood by the masses). She discovered and fell in love with old photographs, fading portraits of Emperors, their wives and concubines. These sad faces without hope have the same look as the faces of present day Chinese women toiling at hard labor. They contradict the Regime’s upbeat version of Chinese history. The Regime was not amused when she began inserting contradictory references into her painting. Yet, Hung’s personal experience confirmed to her the reality beneath the propaganda.
In her installations, paintings, and prints, images are overlaid with washes and drips. These are combined with photolithographs and chine collÄ*. Traditional Chinese symbols of birds, butterflies, fish, dragonflies etc. are drawn and co-mingled with the applied and printed images. Past and present, real and symbolic co-exist in her work. She brings these exive assets to probe thoughtfully her personal issues of being a woman, a Chinese immigrant and an artist.
Now married to Professor Jeff Kelley of the department of Philosophy at Berkeley, and with son, L.C., a student in Chinese History at Beijing, Hung Liu finds herself a reluctant self-exile. Last July at dinner in her studio with her fellow artist and exile, the poet Bei Dao (runner up for the Nobel prize last year) and Fred Wakeman, Dean of Far Eastern Studies at Berkeley and his Chinese wife, it was clear to me--the only non-Chinese speaker at the table--that despite all, China remains the touchstone of their world. It is this poignant ambivalence in her art that raises it to its highest levels.