Hung Liu spent half her life in China, where she was born in Changchun in 1948. The second half of her life she lived in the United States until the time of her death in Oakland in 2021. She was a citizen of two countries: China and the United States, living in each for 36 years. She grew up in Beijing during the revolutionary era of Mao Zedong. In 1968 she was sent to the countryside for four years during the Cultural Revolution where she worked with peasants in rice, wheat, and cornfields seven days a week. During this time, she photographed local farmers with their families and also made drawings of them. After returning from the countryside, she entered the Revolutionary Entertainment Department of Beijing’s Teachers College to study art and education. In 1979 Liu attended the Central Academy of Fine Arts where she majored in mural painting. In 1980, she applied to the Visual Arts graduate program at the University of California, San Diego. After being accepted, it took Liu four years to obtain a passport from the Chinese government. She arrived in California in October 1984 to attend the University of California at San Diego. After receiving her Masters from the University of California, San Diego, the artist remained in this country until her passing, holding the position as head of the painting department at Mills College, Oakland, from 1990 through 2012.

A retrospective of her work, “Summoning Ghosts: The Art and Life of Hung Liu,” was organized in 2013 by the Oakland Museum of California, and toured nationally through 2015. In a review of that show, the Wall Street Journal called Liu “the greatest Chinese painter in the US.” From August 2021 to May 2022 Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands, curated by Dorothy Moss in close consultation with Hung Liu, was on view at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, where the exhibition received the top prize awarded by the Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch for excellence in research. Moss divided Liu’s works, based on historical images from both China and the US into the following themes: Family, Gender, Refugees, and After Lange. For Liu’s multi-layer resin and paint works in this exhibition, the gallery mines these themes to include: Chinese Children, Comfort Women-Portraits, After Lange, and Signature Flower-The Dandelion.

Liu’s painting style, with its fluid washes, expressionistic brushstrokes, and eroding photo- based images, has often been thought of as a kind of weeping realism – especially when applied to Chinese subjects. Reacting against the rigid techniques of Chinese Socialist Realism, in which she was trained, Liu’s hand has deftly engaged her subjects, turning old photographs into new paintings, and anonymous figures into dignified individuals, a strategy applied equally to her Dorothea Lange-inspired works, as for her Chinese subjects. While inspired by photographic subject matter, the artist never aimed to make her works photorealistic, her drips and circles, as well as additions of imagery from ancient Chinese paintings lifted the image away from the representational into the realm of a dream. In 2006 Liu developed a hybrid technique (along with David Salgado, master printmaker of Trillium Graphics) combining painting, print making, gold leaf, and resin in works she called Za Zhong, meaning bastard painting in Chinese. There was no known nomenclature for these works, thus, the artist’s name for her newly invented technique that was neither print nor painting, but a unique synthesis. Each of the multi-layer resin and paint pieces was hand- painted by the artist based on an image from one of her paintings, one removed from the original photograph that provided the source inspiration for the painting.

In Themes and Variations, we honor the vision of the artist in a medium that was truly her own, to which she applied the same energy and principles she applied to her oil paintings. Themes and Variations is a celebration of Hung Liu and her abiding commitment to humanity, seen most profoundly in her portraits both from Chinese historical images and Dorothea Lange photographs. While many of her subjects were refugees, or field workers, Liu depicts them with honor and dignity.

A two-time recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in painting, Liu has exhibited throughout the nation and beyond. A retrospective of her work, “Summoning Ghosts: The Art and Life of Hung Liu,” was organized in 2013 by the Oakland Museum of California, and toured nationally through 2015. Liu’s works have been exhibited extensively and collected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Nelson Atkins Museum and the Kemper Museum, Kansas City, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Palm Springs Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of American Art, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C., the Asian Art Museum and the De Young Museum of San Francisco, as well as the San Jose Museum of Art, among others. She taught at Mills College between 1990 and 2012, becoming Professor Emerita in 2014. In 2022 Liu had an exhibition entitled “Hung Liu: Golden Gate” at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. She was also recently honored with a retrospective, “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands” at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. in 2022. Liu was the first Asian American to have a solo show at the National Portrait Gallery.