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Art Review : Hung Liu's Fortunes Rest in Fresh Paintings


IRVINE — Lured by word of an installation by Hung Liu containing 200,000 fortune cookies, visitors to the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery well may find several less extravagant-sounding works of hers to be more rewarding.


Born in China in 1948, Liu trained at the Central Academy in Beijing as a Socialist Realist muralist during the Cultural Revolution. After emigrating to the U.S., she earned her master's of fine arts at UC San Diego, a hotbed of critical theory.

For the past decade or so she has painted in what she dryly calls a "social realist" style, based largely on old photographs of Chinese concubines posed with Western accouterments. These figurative works deftly intertwine political and cultural references.

Her installation "Jiu Jin Shan: Old Gold Mountain" is a more straightforward affair. Three-dimensional, shaped paintings of six large and small Chinese fishing boats hang on the walls surrounding a veritable mountain of fortune cookies. Stationed at four compass points, sundials fashioned from rocks display satellite photographs of various parts of the world.

"Old Gold Mountain" was a phrase used by Chinese emigrants to describe San Francisco, the "promised land" that often rewarded sacrifice and hard work with rampant discrimination and poverty. (The original version of the installation, in San Francisco, included railroad ties recalling the exploited Chinese laborers who built the Western portion of the transcontinental railroad.)

More obviously, the immense heap of fortune cookies and the sundials suggest the multitude of hopes and dreams brought to these shores by immigrants from many points of the globe.

Such information is efficiently conveyed by the piece, but it doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know, and--like so many other intelligent but visually bland installations--its didacticism overrules its visceral appeal. Liu's paintings generally are more arresting in their own right, while proposing fresher and more complex views of social issues.

"Madame X," for example, is the portrait of a woman who extends her pitiful bound feet--once considered by Chinese men to be the ultimate feminine adornment--directly into the viewer's space.

The mirror behind her head is blank, effectively canceling out the viewer's presence and, by extension, the covetous gaze of any man who would see her as a mere physical object. Madame X coolly stares out at the world with a bizarre dual identity: physically hobbled victim and mentally liberated observer.

In "Yellow Pair," clearly based on a vintage photograph, the subjects are two unsmiling concubines who recline, holding hands, on a Victorian chaise lounge someone has dragged to a river bank (or, more likely, a photo studio's painting of the natural setting).

A slight blurriness in the concubines' faces and the obscuring function of thin rivulets of paint give the scene a distant, nostalgic quality--painterly affectations that mirror the aesthetic self-consciousness of the original photograph.

Contemporary Western furniture was considered very chic in turn-of-the-century China, as were poses copied from the Western notion of the odalisque or slave girl--ironically, a romanticized version of an Asian original.

The architectural element attached to the top of the painting--an Art Nouveau frieze of robed figures, possibly Greek gods--adds one more layer to the cross-cultural aesthetic borrowing in this piece. But it also helps to point up the sad titillation of packaging young girls for sale in genteel, "artistic" poses, as if the studied appearance of culture could eradicate pain and degradation.

* "Jiu Jin Shan: Old Gold Mountain" and other works by Hung Liu remain through Oct. 29 at the UC Irvine Fine Arts Gallery in the Fine Arts Village off Bridge Road on the UCI campus. Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Free. (714) 856-8251. *

SHORT STROKES: Ann Phong's roiling paintings at Griffin Fine Art are populated mostly by ghosts--white outlines of figures in Vietnamese peasant dress evoking immigrant memories of toil and persecution. Like most ghosts, they are most convincing when most elusive. The best work is "Jump": A pair of feet, separated from their slippers by a raging torrent, rests on a cartoon-like "ledge" made with a single stroke of white paint--a perfect dream image of false security. (Through Oct. 23 at Griffin Fine Art, 1640 Pomona Ave., Costa Mesa. 6-11 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: free. (714) 646-5665. The gallery is also showing elliptical works by Liza Ryan that combine photography, texts and appropriated imagery, also through Oct. 23).

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