Liu’s exhibition title is a nod to J.D. Salinger’s novel, Catcher in the Rye. In Liu’s new paintings, the Depression-era American child’s purpose is the same as Salinger’s main characters. Both long to protect the innocence of childhood and to shield children from the harsh realities of life at a tragic point in American history. Hung Liu is no stranger to the loss of childhood. She endured forced “re-education” working 364 days/year in the wheat fields of the Chinese countryside during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Her intellectual father died after being held in a labor camp, and her mother destroyed all family photographs in attempts to protect the young Liu from retaliation. Thus, Hung Liu has devoted her artistic career to collecting photographs of dispossessed people, memorializing her adopted “family” in her paintings.
Liu arrived in the U.S. from China in 1984 and embraced the idea of artistic freedom. Her painterly style developed as a method of challenging the strict confines of her training in China; her practice of painting evolved to express freedom through washes of color on canvas and drips of paint. From 1984 to 2015, Liu depicted primarily Chinese subjects, from prostitutes and concubines to peasants and laborers, using historic photographic collections as source material to explore the struggles and strength of the people in her own country who were displaced by political or natural forces. In 2015, Liu developed an affinity for Dorothea Lange’s Dust-Bowl era photography, and she has painted American stories of trial and perseverance since then.
Liu sees the struggle of the poor and dispossessed beyond the boundaries of time or culture. She sees herself in the faces of the migrant workers in Lange’s photographs. It is in this depiction of displacement and forced migration where a common thread binds Liu’s past (Chinese) and present (American) work. Liu’s paintings converse with both Lange’s photographs and historic Chinese photographs in an exploration of the universality of human dignity and strength.
Liu’s title work in the exhibition, Catcher in the Rays, is a monumental painting featuring a larger than life young girl shielding her eyes as if she looks into the future. A young boy has his back to the viewer, seemingly nostalgic for the past. Trained as a Social Realist painter in China, Liu’s iconography is highly charged with symbolism. There is no doubt she views her Catcher in the Rays as a socio-political statement about the choices we currently face as a society. Like all Liu’s works since mid-2015, the works in this exhibition are inspired by Dorothea Lange’s photographs from the Dust Bowl era of the Great Depression. Liu’s profoundly emotive paintings portray Lange’s subjects with brightly-colored detail lines that suggest a nervous system vibrating to the surface with inner strength in what she calls “light and hope coming from between the cracks of things,” and some of the paintings depict children caring for animals when they couldn’t even feed themselves.
Liu invites the audience to look beyond their own experiences and recognize the humanity in her subjects who face universal issues of poverty, displacement, and survival. Her work begs the question asks, “Why is the world still struggling with these issues?” From her unique perspective as one who has lived this history, Liu educates, sparks questions and provokes reflection through her powerful and evocative paintings.
Hung Liu: Catcher in the Rays
Exhibition Dates: July 19-August 12, 2019
Opening Reception: Friday, July 19, 2019 from 5pm – 7pm with an Artist Talk at 6pm
Turner Carroll Gallery
725 Canyon Rd
Santa Fe, NM 87501