Review: Chinese artist Hung Liu made pastoral paintings into a revolutionary act of personal realism

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Hung Liu’s gratifying — and also problematic — show at Walter Maciel features her earliest series of work and her most recent, bookending her long and distinguished career as a painter, printmaker and professor.

Born in China in 1948, Liu came to the U.S. in 1984, and lives now in Oakland. She typically bases her paintings on historical Chinese photographs and films, focusing on the convolutions of state power and the visual manifestations of ideology. She builds upon given images, frequently using montage to join disparate ideas, her robust brushwork devolving into dilute, mournful drips.


In her new work, from 2015 to the present, Liu draws upon the photographs of Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). This marks a significant change of subject matter and sourcing for Liu, since Lange is American. It also fundamentally alters the nature of the work. Lange made her most notable pictures under the auspices of the Farm Security Administration, a government agency that used a stable of photographers to document Depression-era life, justifying the need for and, sometimes, the effectiveness of New Deal relief programs. The FSA’s enterprise was more on the order of public relations than insidious propaganda — the through line of Liu’s Chinese-themed work. Here, she skirts critique altogether in favor of exuberant homage, as if to reiterate the dignity Lange conferred on her subjects, from young fieldworkers to the iconic “Migrant Mother.”

For each large canvas, Liu has plucked an individual or group from a Lange picture, isolated the subject and rendered him or her monumental, translating the black and white tones of the photograph into candy-bright, squirming lines and luscious fill-in strokes. The effect is formally dazzling but also disturbing. The integrity and sobriety of Lange’s images are all but sacrificed for these bigger, bolder updates. The effort feels off, like the colorizing of classic films.

Liu made the other series here in her early 20s, while attending Beijing Teacher’s College, after four years of “reeducation” in the fields of a farming commune. She would sneak out daily with a portable paint box and make her way to spots in the countryside where she sketched, in oil on paper, beautifully observed vignettes of everyday life: an empty, docked boat; distant figures crossing a bridge; laundry hanging on a line. Such work constituted a quietly revolutionary act at a time (1972-1975) when artists were expected to heroicize and idealize or issue paeans to the proletariat. Against the political correctness of socialist realism, Liu persisted in practicing a private, personal realism. She calls this series of humble declamations, “My Secret Freedom,” but they could equally go by the title she gives to the Lange-inspired work: “Unthinkable Tenderness.”

Walter Maciel Gallery, 2642 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 839-1840, through Oct. 27. Closed Sunday and Monday.