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Getting to know them: Hung Liu's Women Who Work

Time:2018-03-17 13:51Shoes websites Click:

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The artist Hung Liu is deeply committed to honoring those whom history has forgotten. The Chinese and American subjects of her works are laborers, refugees, and others whose names may not be recognizable but whose lives Liu commemorates with portraits that are at once intimate and noble. A young bride in China appears to await her wedding ceremony, her alert look suggesting wisdom beyond her years. A courtesan invites the viewer to admire her, yet her gaze tells us of an interiority beyond what she chooses to reveal. The portraits are taken from old found photographs to which Liu has added vibrant colors, abstract background elements, and rich symbolism.

Liu’s prints and tapestries are on display in the exhibition Hung Liu: Women Who Work, opening Friday, March 16, at Turner Carroll Gallery. The title of the exhibit, Liu said, pays tribute to the mostly female subjects of her art, and it serves double duty to highlight the “work” aspect of her artwork. The exhibition’s fitting debut midway through Women’s History Month also coincides with a show currently at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., Hung Liu in Print. Both exhibitions invite viewers to study the individual humanity in every portrait, each of which depicts a woman whose life is no less meaningful than the ones we read about in history books.

“I want to make anonymous people known,” Liu said. “You may not know their names, but you do see their faces.” Liu described how in Madame Shoemaker, a 5-by-6-foot tapestry, a woman labors at shoemaking while butterflies hover around her. “This woman is surrounded by beautiful butterflies, as if she were a beautiful and sweet-smelling flower. That way, I think, it’s like my offering to a working woman who is actually anonymous, just like so many women, Chinese women in the past.” She added, “It’s not a realistic environment but rather, in a way, surreal or romantic and imaginative. I think she deserves it.”

“I remember my grandmother made shoes for the whole family, before shoes were manufactured,” Liu continued, recalling her youth in China. “Grandma made shoes for everybody, for her husband, for her children, for her grandchildren. We wear shoes, we walk with our shoes. It’s putting on you — it’s very personal. That kind of intimate relationship of women making shoes for their family members, for their loved ones, it’s a part of personal history.”

Liu’s artistry is intertwined with her own personal history. She was born in Changchun, China, in 1948, a year before Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In an oral history interview published in American Art, Liu described being interested in art at a young age, when she would admire her grandfather’s calligraphy and stamp collections and make portraits of friends. She studied art at a prestigious girls’ boarding school (where Mao’s daughters also went), but after the Cultural Revolution began, she was sent to the countryside to work in wheat and rice fields — a “re-education.” Liu described sketching the other laborers during political meetings, “an old woman sitting there, maybe making shoes, or breastfeeding a baby, or people just napping.” Later, she majored in mural painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing; throughout her art education in China, she was trained in the propagandistic style of Socialist Realism.

When Liu came to America in 1984 to attend the University of California at San Diego, she learned new modes of art. Over the past decades, she has explored different forms of media with a consistent focus on giving representation to the under- or unrepresented. (She does not, however, call herself as a political artist, because of the narrowness of such labeling.) Today she is a professor emerita at Mills College, where she taught for 24 years.

Liu’s early work in America includes pieces that are explicitly about immigration. The painting Resident Alien (1988), for instance, is a rendition of her green card, but her birth year is listed as 1984, and her name has been replaced by “Cookie, Fortune.” The exhibition at the Turner Carroll Gallery also features portrayals of identity in transit. The print Route 66, based on a Dorothea Lange photograph — Liu has, in recent years, depicted more American subjects, including works based on Lange images — shows children leaning over the top of a wooden wagon, which has been packed with belongings. One child looks out, his arms dangling over a mattress on top of the wagon, while another has been brought to a more foregrounded layer of the print, from which she too looks out at the viewer, dreamily and knowingly. The mattress seems to float, “almost like she’s in mid-air, like a dream state,” Liu said, with paint dripping down from it. To the left, a red dandelion rises from below to take up nearly the entire height of the print. Some of its seeds have floated away.

The Turner Carroll exhibition features a selection of monotypes of dandelions against warm yellow backdrops. Liu based the prints on paintings she made, which were in turn based on photographs she took during American road trips. “It’s a part of rural history, the repression of Native American people and culture,” she said of sites she visited, like that of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. “The dandelions grow up from those kinds of fields, saturated with the blood and the untold stories. Also, the dandelions remind me of my childhood, a long time ago, in China — dandelions everywhere. ... What I like about the seeds, they just flow away in the wind. It’s very much like migratory seeds. Sort of like immigration, migration.” She added, “I remember, the little seeds flying, we called them little parachutes. They take a chance.”

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