I’ve been meaning to talk about Hung Liu for a while now (2 months?) and here we finally are. I was reminded of her when I got a paint box as a graduation gift today. My professor pointed out that I could do small paintings in it like Hung Liu, and that’s exactly where my mind already was.

First thing’s first: this expression makes no sense. Second thing (which is second):

Gaah!! I LOVE HER!!

Hung Liu recently came to DU – well, in April – and I had the pleasure of not only attending her lecture and having her visit one of my classes, but to speak with her one-on-one when I crashed a studio class that I wasn’t even taking. (It was a Hung monopoly.)

Of course her work is all beautiful, and I loved getting to hear about her process and progression over time. We also had the wonderful fortune to have this work displayed in the Myhren (art school) gallery as part of The Female Gaze exhibition:

Visage II

Visage II, 2004, oil on canvas.

She was also so personable, which hasn’t been the case for all our visiting artists (as expected – I’m not trying to call out anyone in particular). Overall there were two main takeaways that I got from speaking with Hung that were very important for me. One, we discussed Hung’s philosophy on political art. Two, grieving through art.

I feel like I’d be cheating you if I didn’t show more of Hung Liu’s work, so I’ll mix them in throughout this post.


September, 2001, oil on canvas – done in response to 9/11

So political art. I’d been labeled a political artist in one class, and yes, I do love addressing current social issues. Really, I think it’s just where my interests lie and a function of studying sociology. Art can just be a form of personal expression and so, since these are the things I’m angry about in real life, they inevitably come out in my art. And for me, at this stage, they come out in very blatant ways. But I have been and will continue to think about how I want to communicate heavy or politically-loaded messages. There’s still a lot of experimenting for me to do, and I don’t think I’ll ever get to a stopping point. I don’t believe an artist should “settle down” in one particular style or medium or subject. Even if it takes years to get through a “phase,” great artists keep moving and discovering. But back to Hung Liu.

I talked with Hung about my struggle to balance political messages with aesthetics and subtlety. Her first lesson: no matter how political a piece is, it has to be art. If I want to be involved in politics, there are other things I can do – write, perform, and run for office are some of the things she listed. Or political cartoons (which I’m glad I’ve finally tried out). She’s right, and I felt both comfortable, since I have writing under my belt, and a little pushed back. It probably never feels good to be told that you don’t need to do art, but if I really wanted to make an actual change, I should go beyond art. Even if it’s spreading my art, or creating art for a cause. Catherine Morris from the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art said, “Activism can’t function well without art.”

Strange Fruit: Comfort Women

Strange Fruit: Comfort Women, 2001 oil on canvas

Next lesson: this one even had an analogy. When Hung began describing this, I wasn’t sure where she was going at first, but I was content to sit and listen, and she was content to talk. I felt like I just sat with her and soaked up wisdom. I may have also been a little star struck.

She began with, if a teacher is always loud, students won’t listen. I tuned in, also thinking about how I could be teaching English in Korea next year, and wondering if she was passing on some teacherly wisdom. A teacher can yell and yell, but if the teacher always yells, eventually the students will stop paying attention. But if a teacher speaks very quietly, whispers even, students have to stop talking or being disruptive to listen. (And I think there was an element of, if they won’t listen, you don’t owe them anything.) But art is like that.

If the political message in an art piece is subtle or complex, it’s more effective. She suggests using duality and contradictions. In her 2009 series Apsaras, depicting the victims of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, Hung paints her subjects beautifully with aesthetically-pleasing colors, rather than making the paintings depressing and dark. If these paintings were dark, she says, they would be too much, too hard to look at.

Apsaras, Blue Apsaras, Red

Apsaras, Blue, 2009 & Apsaras, Red, 2009

Hung Liu lived through the Cultural Revolution in China; she’s been through a lot and led an incredible and resilient life. She taught herself to paint at this time, and was even in the military. Even in school, she and other art students were only allowed to paint propaganda, but she painted impressionist landscapes in secret…with her paintbox!

My Secret Freedom No.8   My Secret Freedom No.17

My Secret Freedom No. 8, My Secret Freedom No.17, oil on paper, 1972-1975

I guess briefly I’ll touch on grief too. After our one-on-one conversation, Hung visited my art history class for a Q&A session. She was really wonderful. But maybe you’re sick of hearing that by now. I asked a question about ghosts, referring to the people from old photographs that she incorporates in her work (look up her show Summoning Ghosts). All these people were historical, so I asked if she had done anything like this for people she knew personally. She asked, you mean make portraits of them? I felt silly because that sounded so basic, but then she got at the heart of what I really wanted to know, which was, how do you address the death of a loved one through art? Hung Liu’s mother passed away a few years ago, and I felt bad afterwards, realizing how recent it was, and how those wounds were still healing. But throughout the whole thing, she was completely open and honest; I appreciated her sincerity so much.

In 2011, Hung did a series entitled To Live mourning her mother. The series had 51 small paintings (1’x1’ squares, I think), done over the course of 49 days. She painted little things in her mother’s apartment, as she went through the torturous process of packing her mother’s belongings. Some of her subjects were an IKEA chair, the kitchen sink, the light patch on the wall left when she removed a clock, and a piece of garlic that had begun to sprout – the first painting.

To Live

Toothbrush and Cup, 2012 from To Live

She never did a portrait of her mother, because she didn’t want the work to be too literal or direct. Hung talked about how objects often outlive humans, and tell stories. These objects told stories about her mother’s life. Even as her mother was sick and dying, she made an effort to live, cooking food (the dumplings) she couldn’t even eat. To Live became the title.

For Hung, To Live wasn’t meant to shown (but a curator convinced her and made space at her retrospective). They were just for her, and, Hung told us, she didn’t truly consider them art. But they’re beautiful, and I’m grateful that she has.

You can see more of these works in the preview here:

That made a lot of sense and really helped me. Everyone grieves differently, hearing this took the pressure off me to create something great and in commemoration. Art is a form of expression, but sometimes that expression is just for you.