By Mark Jenkins
In the late 1960s, as some Western artists and intellectuals flirted with Maoism, Hung Liu joined Mao’s Cultural Revolution — but not by choice. Along with at least 16 million other young urban Chinese, the aspiring painter was forced to the countryside to be “reeducated” by laboring in the fields with villagers.
The effect of that four-year stint as a “sent-down youth” can be seen everywhere in “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands,” the retrospective now at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s palpable in Liu’s style, but also in her compassion for her subjects — who range from members of her own family to refugees, farmworkers and women forced into prostitution.
Eventually, Liu was allowed to leave China to study at the University of California at San Diego. She stayed in the United States for the rest of her life, dying in Oakland, Calif., in August. She was involved in the planning of this exhibition, the first by an Asian American woman at the museum, only to succumb to pancreatic cancer just a few weeks after it was diagnosed.
That Liu continued to depict people from her family’s and her homeland’s past is hardly surprising. More intriguing is that the artist didn’t quite abandon socialist realism, the official style she was taught at Beijing’s Central Academy of the Arts. Liu altered realist renderings with surface effects, whether dripping linseed oil over the finished picture or adding sketchy, brightly colored lines that follow the contours of facial features. But the authorized Communist mode of representation is never entirely masked.
One of Liu’s best-known paintings is “Resident Alien,” an outsized rendering of her own U.S. permanent resident card in which her name has been replaced by “Cookie, Fortune.” (Such cookies are widely associated with Chinese restaurants, of course, although they’re likely of Japanese origin.) More personally, the card lists her year of birth not as 1948, the actual date, but as 1984, the year she arrived in the United States. Both are her birth years, Liu suggests.
That picture is grouped with others of Liu and her family. The artist worked from photographs to reconstruct her own life, and later used photos to portray lives that were geographically, if not spiritually, far from her own. Among the foretellings of artistic careers are “Little Artist,” in which her toddler son draws with chalk, and “Avant-Garde,” derived from a photo of Liu as a uniformed young Maoist. She’s carrying a rifle, but its barrel is painted with the flickering colors of a Monet sunrise.