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Who in the World Is Hung Liu?

And why are so many museums and galleries—at least seven around the U.S. this year alone—celebrating this little-known Bay Area–based painter and teacher? 

September 2001 by Hung Liu.

If you’ve heard of her at all, you probably know Hung Liu as the creator of the epic mural of migrating cranes at the Oakland airport, or as a beloved Mills College art professor retiring this summer at age 65 (hence all the hoopla, including solo shows at Mills, the San Jose Museum of Art, and the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York).

But in the art world, Liu is an international superstar—“one of America’s great painters” and “the leading edge of the Chinese contemporary art scene,” says René de Guzman, curator of Liu’s new retrospective at the Oakland Museum of California. Born in 1948, Liu survived the brutal mass industrialization of the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution, which wiped out much of the Chinese intelligentsia. In 1984, with $20 to her name, she became one of the first Chinese artists to study in the United States (at UC San Diego), where her story merged with what de Guzman calls “the grand narrative of America.”

Surveying the Oakland show, including pieces Liu painted in secret during the ’70s, the words “gorgeous” and “moving” come to mind, but not necessarily de Guzman’s adjective: “avant-garde.” Lui’s work melds the large scale and strict technique of socialist realist propaganda with the drippy freedom of abstract expressionism, often employing historical photos (radical in a place like China, intent on obliterating its past). She comments on everything from 9/11 to the 2008 earthquake that killed thousands of Chinese schoolkids.

“In many ways Liu is the person who made it possible for the current generation of Chinese artists to do what they do,” de Guzman says. “There really is almost no one like her in the world.”

Summoning Ghosts: The Art of Hung Liu displays at the Oakland Museum of California through March 16 - June 30.

 

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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