What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

February 17, 2022

Hung Liu
Rainbow: In Memory of Hung Liu
Walter Maciel Gallery
January 8 - March 5, 2022

Hung Liu

Hung Liu passed away from pancreatic cancer on August 7, 2021. Just prior to her death, the exhibition Hung Liu: Golden Gate opened at the de Young Museum in San Francisco where it remains on view through August 7, 2022. The exhibition at the de Young includes a reproduction of her seminal work, Resident Alien from 1988, enlarged to span an entire wall. The painting depicts Liu's own Green Card inscribed with the name "Cookie, Fortune" and remains one of Liu's most well known works. A Chinese immigrant, Liu was formally trained in the social realist style of the Chinese Communist Party, yet through her graduate work at the University of California, San Diego begun in 1984 (she came to the United States to study at the age of 36), she started to use her art to explore stories of immigration. Since the mid 1990s, she was a professor at Mills College in Oakland, CA.

Liu had her first solo show at Walter Maciel Gallery in 2006 and he continued to support and champion her work, giving her solo exhibitions every few years. It was fitting for Maciel to host an exhibition to honor her memory and celebrate her career. A gracious wall text by Jeff Kelley, Liu's husband and studio manager, serves as the introduction to the exhibition and informs viewers that Liu's mother passed away from pancreatic cancer ten years before Liu succumbed to the same illness. Liu returned home to visit her ailing mother and created a suite of fifty-one small paintings a year after she passed. This body of work, titled To Live is on view as an homage to both mother and daughter.

Presented in groups on horizontal bands of color representing the rainbow, the paintings take viewers on a journey of remembrance. The To Live paintings are juxtaposed with other works that span Liu's career ranging from video to paintings on hand-made ceramic tiles, as well as examples from her Unthinkable Tenderness series that feature paintings inspired by Dorothea Lange photographs, like the large-scale enigmatic depiction of 'the migrant mother' in In the Camp II (2016).

Though bittersweet, the paintings that make up To Live call attention to everyday life, things taken for granted or overlooked, while bringing significance to that which is left behind. Liu began this series, working from photographs of things left in her mother's Beijing apartment including a bulb of garlic, bowls and jars of food, a shower stool, a power strip and other personal objects found in her home. Liu painted these things in close-up — cropping in on the objects so they fill the frame— quickly and expressively with large sweeping brush strokes. She created one 12 x 12 inch painting a day. Together, they become a portrait of a person as defined by the things that surrounded her. The painting To Live 33 depicts an empty bed and is followed by an image of a hospital monitor with flat lines. It is here that the sequence shifts from a celebration of life to the reality of death. The next two images illustrate the blackness and feelings of loss (To Live 34 (II): Blackness, January 28, 2012 and To Live 34 (III): Circle on Black, January 28, 2012). Liu then moves on to the process of mourning as depicted by the remaining paintings of lit, flickering candles. It is impossible to view these works and not wonder how they relate to Liu's own collection of objects and to see the lighted candles as a tribute to the spirit of the artist.

Three videos, a medium Liu was not necessarily known for, complement the To Live paintings as meditations on life and death. Projected in a darkened room is the short loop Between Sky and Earth (2013). In this mesmerizing piece, Liu cycles through a continuous grid of twenty images that morph from cloud-filled skies, to lit candles and road kill featuring birds and deer, as well as the amazing shapes of the citrus fruit known as Buddha’s hand. Based on snapshots Liu took with her cellphone before her mother's passing, the work, especially now, is a powerful meditation on life and death. During the less than four minute duration of Black Rain (2013) dark drips slowly cover a screen obscuring the orange glow of a cloud filled sky. The 4:49 minute Red Candle (2013) also complements the candle paintings in To Live. In this video, Liu filmed a flame of a burning candle against a deep black void, while focusing on the disappearing wick and melting red wax. Again, given that the exhibition is a tribute to the artist, this work also symbolizes the trajectory of life to death.

While Rainbow: In Memory of Hung Liu only presents a selection of works from Liu's long and varied career, it gives viewers plenty to think about and is a fitting tribute to an artist whose life was sadly cut short just when she was reaching her prime.