In 2018, artist Hung Liu (1948-2021) and David Salgado (1949-2018), print master and founder of Trillium Graphics, invited Anne Rose Kitagawa, chief curator of Asian art at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, and then museum director Jill Hartz to see the work Liu produced at Trillium Graphics Studio in Brisbane, California. Salgado had helped Liu develop a “hybrid process” that combines printmaking and painting. Kitagawa says they went into the studio hoping to purchase a single piece of art. Instead, Hartz and Kitagawa were asked if they wanted the entire collection.
Kitagawa recalls being overwhelmed. She says, “It felt like a proposal.” Of course, they said yes to the offer.
Remember This: Hung Liu at Trillium was designed to display and commemorate these 55 artworks that were donated to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon. However, this exhibition celebrates the artist’s life and career in equal measure. Liu passed away unexpectedly in August 2021, two weeks after being diagnosed with cancer.
Kitagawa and current JSMA Executive Director John Weber expected Liu to speak in connection with the opening of their exhibition in February 2022. The artist was scheduled to talk about how she came to America to study art, and at the University of California, San, Diego ended up because a non-artist friend was there and said she heard that the school have a good art department. Then, although she was accepted in 1980, it took four years for her paperwork to be processed. When she arrived in San Diego in 1984, she found an MFA program that was very experimental. In other words, the opposite of how she was educated at China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, where she majored in mural painting and learned to paint in the style of social realism.
Instead, in March 2022, Weber and Jeff Kelley, who were both graduate students at UCSD in the 1980s, gave the talk on Liu’s journey to America. Weber was in the room when her application was viewed by people in the department, but was gone when she arrived. Jeff Kelley, an art critic and curator, was Liu’s husband. Narrated by Kitagawa, the discussion is a behind-the-scenes look at the artist, whose compassion for those around her seemed to know no bounds.
Liu’s multimedia work at JSMA is the result of 15 years working with Salgado at Trillium Graphics. He helped her work with prints of previous paintings so she could manipulate them in new ways, and also created the layers of resin she would work on in his studio. The result is brilliant, with light reflecting subtly between layers.
White Rice Bowl (2014), like all the artworks in the show, is marked as multimedia. It is inspired by a 19th centuryth Century photograph of a child feeding his younger brother. The children are depicted in a style that reflects Liu’s training as a realist painter. Further painting is applied in layers to the resin panels created by Salgado. Other images painted in White Rice Bowl are a plant, a bird and gestural paint brush strokes.
The central theme in White Rice Bowl but are the children. One helps the other to eat – to survive. So Liu thought about imagining people eating as if showing them trying to survive. She says so in a remarkable video produced by KQED Spark, in which she flips through old or vintage photographs of people she doesn’t necessarily know but has already painted. She looks at a picture of someone eating from a bowl and says, “This farmer has no face. The bowl only covers his face to survive… It’s just an amazing image to me. It reminds me of what a famous poet said. He said, ‘I’ve lived many lives, some of them my own.’ I felt like that sometimes.”
In the video, Liu looks at a photo of a woman. “I lived her life,” she says. Then, in one photo, she gestures to children: “I lived the life of these children.”
39 paintings are on display in JSMA’s Barker Hall, but more of Liu’s art is on display in the stairwells, the Soreng Chinese Art Gallery, and the lobby. In total, the museum presents 53 works. Each work of art can be seen as both a commentary on the dangers of being human and an object of great beauty.
Apsaras (2012), according to the museum, is named after Buddhist heavenly beings. Their presence signifies ‘transition to a higher realm’ and in the painting these female spirits fly out of the Dunhuang cave temples. The painting speaks to Liu’s training as a muralist as it consists of four panels arranged horizontally across a wall. The horizontal orientation also connects to the time Liu spent in the Gobi Desert while studying cave painting at Dunhuang Art School.
The central theme is an 8.0 magnitude earthquake near Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, that left millions homeless and killed nearly 90,000 people. A painting depicting Chinese people enduring great suffering, such as Apsaras would have resulted in punishment if Liu had made it in China. Artworks made in China had to make people happy, even when working in the fields or facing a disaster.
Liu himself was sent to work in the fields. It happened just as she was graduating from high school. As part of the Cultural Revolution’s effort to “re-educate” people, she worked for four years with only one day off a year before attending art school. However, during those four years she photographed her friends and the farmers who lived in the countryside. Mixed media works based on Hung Liu photographs taken in the countryside (ca. 1968-72) is a collection of nine portraits from this period.
During Kelley’s speech about his late wife’s move from China to America, it is revealed that Liu studied with Allan Kaprow at UCSD, of all people. Kaprow is one of the most avant-garde celebrities in art history, best known for his invention of The Happening. She must have learned from Kaprow that she did not have to paint in any style. In fact, she didn’t need to paint at all.
During the 1980s and 1990s she created installations and paintings that referenced her status as an immigrant. The monumentally large painting Resident Alien (1988), now in the San Jose Museum of Art, replicates her US Resident Alien Card, albeit with a few tweaks. She renamed herself “Cookie, Fortune,” which Kitagawa tells me was a reference to a derogatory slang used to describe Chinese women. It was also meant to be tongue-in-cheek, as Liu found the fact that she was an alien (like ET) funny.
Liu also changed the date of her birth in her Resident Alien card painting to reflect the year of her arrival in the States: 1984. In 1994, she continued to use the theme of fortune cookies as a medium and metaphor for cultural experiences in Jiu Jin Shan: Old Gold Mountainan installation piece with a stack of 200,000 fortune cookies.
Fortune cookies, A series of 20 small canvases exhibited at JSMA was completed in 2013 and will be exhibited at JSMA. It picks up the theme of her fake Americanized name painted four years after she arrived in the US, although this time she’s painting the cookies instead of using the original.
The cookies and the paintings look as if they have been glazed with gold; a color, says Kitagawa, which for Liu symbolized the idea that immigrants could find wealth and happiness in America (even as an immigrant, my father jokingly told me we came to America because he heard there was gold on the streets ).
Volumes can be said about the work of Hung Liu. I haven’t even mentioned her use of Chinese symbols, for example, or, perhaps more famously, the combination of realism and drops that make her paintings and multimedia works instantly recognizable. A combination of realistic presence and symbolic gesture that feels like seeing people who are about to be forgotten or who would be forgotten if Liu hadn’t painted them.
However, it is her subject matter, which focuses on issues affecting immigrants and negative stereotypes, that makes Liu’s work so powerful and timely. Nowadays art is almost expected to be used for social commentary, but Liu created artworks that challenged authoritative texts from the beginning of her life as an artist in the United States – 1984 – the time of her “birth”.
Her goal, says Kitagawa in the exhibition, “is to restore the sitter’s dignity by making lavish, beautiful likenesses.”
“Remember This” is about all of the people Liu painted, often strangers with whom she identified. But it’s also about the incredible empathy she had as an artist. You can hear it in the way she talks about painting her subjects in the KQED video as she flips through black and white photographs. Mostly you can see it in the way she treated them in her art; surrounded by color, lush backgrounds, and references to history and culture, even if those things weren’t evident in the photos she worked from. She makes these additions, Kitagawa says, to restore the dignity of her subjects, whether they’re sitting on a pile of rubble or trying to get the last piece of food out of a bowl.