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Beauty in service to the truth

Many of Hung Liu's recent paintings derive from historical photos of China's painful past.

September 24, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

HOW do you paint something horrible? Chinese laborers shipped to Japan and worked to the bone during World War II? Korean "comfort women" forced into prostitution at military bases? Starving peasants?

"I think it has to be beautiful," says Hung Liu, a Chinese American, Oakland-based artist who is showing new works at the Walter Maciel Gallery. "The subject matter is harsh enough. If you try to make it ugly, what does that mean? Badly painted? I want to give back some dignity to these people who are long gone and were never acknowledged.

"Also, as a painter, I love the contrast of jarring colors, the subtle and the strong, all the issues. It's not just about subject matter. It's not illustration or propaganda. It's a painting. If it's beautiful, people want to look at it; then they realize what's going on."

Born in Changchun in 1948, Liu grew up under the Maoist regime and spent four years getting a proletarian "reeducation" in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. "That experience had a profound effect on me as an artist," she says. "We were so poor, but the people who lived in the country had nothing. They produced food for us while they were starving."

When art schools reopened, Liu enrolled in a rigorous program and earned the equivalent of a master of fine arts degree in mural painting at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing in 1981. She immigrated to the U.S. in 1984 and received a second MFA, in visual arts, from UC San Diego in 1986. Married to independent critic and curator Jeff Kelley, she has been a member of the art faculty at Mills College in Oakland since 1990 and a tenured professor there since 1995.

"For the past two decades, I have been more and more interested in historical photographs," she says, walking toward "Hua Gang (Flower Ridge)," a 5 1/2 by-11-foot painting of naked men lined up in front of a barracks. "This painting is based on a photograph of Chinese slave laborers in Japan, taken at the end of World War II. I found it a year ago when I went to a war museum in Beijing. I was shocked when I saw the picture. Their bodies remind me of Holocaust survivors, stripped down to the lowest form of humanity. The photograph was very blurry, but I could see that each man had a very strong character and personality."

"Painting them was almost like sculpting," says Liu, whose signature work blends realism with expressionistic abstraction, rich in drips, washes and textures. "I wanted to figure out who they were, make them stand for something." In sharp contrast, she surrounded the skeletal bodies with pink clouds of Japanese cherry blossoms. At two central points in the canvas, she inserted blocks of resin with the sweet-sounding name of the labor camp, Flower Ridge, in Chinese characters.

"Strange Fruit II (Comfort Women)," also inspired by a blurry, black-and-white photograph, depicts four women, one of whom is pregnant. The rock-like figures seem to drift between a devastating past and an ominous future. "The faces are so strong," Liu says, "the despair and the compassion for the woman forced to carry a child under those conditions."


Paying respects

A master of many moods and materials, Liu opened a show of paintings in Shanghai this month. For a major public project, recently installed at Oakland International Airport, she designed a 160-foot glass window depicting migratory birds flying over local weather patterns.

Her Los Angeles show, through Oct. 14, includes hand-painted prints encased in resin. A large tapestry, woven in Belgium with the help of digital technology, depicts a young Chinese courtesan as an ageless beauty behind a screen of flowers, birds and circular symbols of continuity. Three bold paintings of birds are contemporary, oil-on-canvas translations of traditional Chinese paintings made on silk or rice paper.

"We all thought Chinese art was a dead thing when we were in college in Beijing," she says. "Oil painting was what we wanted -- Michelangelo, the Renaissance, Russian Socialist Realism." The bird paintings, based on reproductions, are several steps removed from the originals, she says. "It's all about transforming them in another arena. I feel that I'm paying my respects."


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