The Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA) has added three works by contemporary artist Hung Liu (American, born in China, 1948-2021) to its collection. I first came across Liu’s work in writing about her exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery for Forbes.com and was astonished by the emotional quality of her work. Learning about her may have been my greatest artistic “discovery” from 2021. Her paintings have left a lasting impact on me.
Known for working from historical photographs, Liu drew from China’s long history and her own experiences in order to represent people who had historically been invisible or marginalized. The three large-scale paintings – “Temple School” (1996), “Reverie” (1998) and “Imperial Pillar” (2011) – are strong examples of Liu’s signature, loose painting style, which allows for thin washes of linseed oil to drip down the surface of the canvas suggesting tears, or the passage of time and memory.
“Temple School” (1996) features children sitting and studying at tables within a traditional Chinese temple school setting. As is typical with Liu’s portrait work, the children are depicted as individuals with distinct characteristics, who have taken a momentary break from studying to direct their attention to the front of the room. The incorporation of linear perspective speaks to Liu’s interest in Western pictorial traditions and to photography.
“Reverie” (1998) depicts a bearded figure in robes and traditional Chinese cap surrounded by birds. For Liu, the birds may signify sparrows killed during Chairman Mao’s infamous Four Pests Campaign, and serve as warnings of impending catastrophe or as echoes of past disasters.
In “Imperial Pillar” (2011), a figure in white spreads his arms, as if in an embrace, around an intricately carved red column. In Liu’s mixed media works from this time, printed elements were attached to a wood panel, then covered in a transparent and glossy resin. After the resin dried, Liu painted into the figurative sections and added surface decorations and designs. The layered imagery underneath and on top of the shiny resin contributes to a heightened sense of depth and light.
About Hung Liu
Hung Liu was born in Changchun, China, in 1948 and came of age during China’s cultural revolution. After studying mural painting at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, Liu immigrated to the United States at the age of 36 to attend the University of California, San Diego.
She would go on to teach at Mills College in Oakland, California, from 1990 until retiring in 2014. Her work has been exhibited and collected by renowned museums and institutions nationwide. “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands” is currently on view through May 30, 2022, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., and “Hung Liu: Golden Gate” is on view through August 7, 2022, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
Liu died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 7, 2021.
About the Honolulu Museum of Art
A vital part of Hawaiʻi’s cultural landscape, HoMA is a unique gathering place where art, global worldviews, culture and education converge in the heart of Honolulu. In addition to an internationally renowned permanent collection, the museum houses innovative exhibitions, an art school, an independent art house theatre, a café and a museum shop, within one of the most beautiful, iconic buildings in Hawaiʻi.
The museum inspires and uplifts our community through transformative art experiences that celebrate creativity, cultivate wonder, foster empathy and enhance knowledge in order to deepen our connection with one another and the world we share.