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Winter Blossom, #14

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 Winter Blossom, #14

Hung Liu

Cardinal Hall, Fourth Floor

Born in China in 1948 under the Maoist regime, Hung Liu has been described as “the greatest Chinese painter in the US.” Through oil painting with washes of linseed oil, site-specific murals and installations, drawing, photography, printmaking, and mixed media, she primarily depicts historical and contemporary Chinese and American people. She photographs contemporary figures including prostitutes, prisoners, workers, refugees, street performers, but utilizes historical Chinese and American photography as the basis of her portrait and figurative painting. Through a technique of washing, dripping, and dissolving paint, a palette of bold and vibrant colors, and a mixture of historical and contemporary symbolism, she merges the past with the present, and reframes history through a contemporary lens: “Liu has invented a kind of weeping realism that surrenders to the erosion of memory and the passage of time, while also bringing faded photographic images vividly to life as rich, facile paintings. She summons the ghosts of history to the present. In effect, Liu turns old photographs into new paintings.”

In Winter Blossom, Hung Liu summons a mysterious and beautiful figure from China’s imperial past. The face wreathed by plum blossoms and crowned with a tasseled headdress in Winter Blossom belongs to Imperial Concubine Zhen Fei, popularly known as “the Pearl Concubine,” who died in 1900 at the age of 24.

A lively and independent woman, Zhen was the favorite consort of the Guangxu Emperor, and encouraged his attempts at reform and his interest in foreign languages. Unfortunately, Emperor Guangxu’s modernizing attempts to reform China angered the country’s de facto ruler, Empress Dowager Cixi. When it was revealed that Zhen had supported the Emperor’s coup attempt against the Empress in 1898, Zhen was imprisoned.

The artist’s sympathy for this unique and forward-thinking young woman is evident throughout the Winter Blossom composition. The ghostly trace of a butterfly sits atop the red tassel on Zhen’s headdress - such tassels indicated one’s rank in the Imperial court. “I offer this image,” says Liu, “as a tribute to a short-lived woman about whom we still know very little.”

After earning a BFA in Art and Art Education from The Beijing Teachers College in 1975 and a Graduate Degree in Mural Painting from the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing in 1981, she immigrated to America and received an MFA in Visual Art from The University of California San Diego in 1986. Her work has been collected by major institutions such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, as well as private collections and has been extensively exhibited in solo and group shows around the world. Her retrospective “Summoning Ghosts: The Art and Life of Hung Liu” presented by the Oakland Museum, toured nationally in 2015. Among her many awards, she is a two-time recipient of The National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Painting, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Printmaking from The Southern Graphics Council in 2011. She has also been commissioned for several public art installations, including at the San Francisco International Airport; she is a Professor Emerita at Mills University where she taught from 1990.