The Weeping Veil: Painter Hung Liu Excavates the Surface of History

By Huang, Philip | Colorlines Magazine, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

The Weeping Veil: Painter Hung Liu Excavates the Surface of History


Huang, Philip, Colorlines Magazine


MIDWAY THROUGH OUR INTERVIEW for this article, two beefy firefighters, on a routine inspection of commercially zoned sites in the neighborhood, knock on the door of Hung Liu's Oakland studio.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"But this is not a commercial site!" Liu cries. "It's just me and all my paintings!" After the confusion is sorted out, she invites the firemen into the studio. "Come in, come see my paintings! They're quite beautiful!"

The firemen enter shyly. Soon they are full of awe.

This is an understandable reaction to Liu's work. The canvases are large, each running 6 to 10 feet long, and the faces they depict are almost unbearably vivid in the sunlit studio.

Liu, an Arts professor at Mills College in Oakland, California, who immigrated to the United States from China in 1984, often works from archival photographs of Chinese peasants and young prostitutes. Her main interest is the human figure, painted with the realistic technique of a trained muralist. She is also heavily interested in symbolism, and the figures in her paintings are often surrounded by lively foxes, butterflies and cranes. She has said that her secret collaborator is gravity. She dilutes her paints with linseed oil, and the colors weep down, as if the men and women in her paintings lived such sorrowful lives that their souls resist any more containment.

Her new series of paintings is based on stills from Daughters of China, a 1949 film produced by the Chinese government to commemorate the heroism of eight female soldiers who fought a flank of Japanese soldiers during the occupation of Northeast China in 1938.

"At the last minute, one of the women was killed," Liu says, "and the Japanese were pushing over. Behind the women was the river. They decided to destroy all their weapons and carry their dead comrade across the river."

She shows me three large paintings of the women in the churning river, their arms clasped around each other's shoulders.

"I like the images of the women. I also like to see their beauty--their Chinese beauty. They're supposed to be very demure, right? But here they're rugged because they're soldiers, and I love their femininity. Their hands are these beautiful female hands. The youngest soldier is only 13. So really, to our standards, they're kids--they're so young, but they're fighting a war."

"I think," Liu continues, "a lot of Chinese movies are overlooked in the history of motion pictures. In these early movies, the actors aren't wearing makeup. Their look is very natural. There's probably only one camera. Some parts really look like a documentary--they're really carrying the body across the river. There are no special effects--just very matter-of-fact. This is what happened. This is what these women went through."

One painting is particularly haunting. The women are waist-deep in the water now, soon the water will separate and drown them, and their faces are blurry and out of focus, as if the water has blanched their specific identities to prepare them for the abstraction of history.

"It is like the mystery of history itself, the pending water," Liu says. "What is buried there? We'll never know. What hangs on these walls is a fragment, We can try, but we can only recover pieces. But I like the symbolism of water. It is like Confucius saying, 'Time is like water flowing.'"

She adds, "There is a Chinese phrase we use to describe heroes: shi si ru gui--facing death is like going home. It means that heroes are at ease with death, These eight women drowned, but their heroism is timeless. Regardless of which side [they're on], when people fight for their beliefs, I really admire that kind of human spirit."

Liu has a broad, smooth face that only hints at her age. She was born in 1948, the Year of the Rat, and she has a charming sense of humor. She recently read a review of Pixar's animated film Ratatouille, which voiced disgust at the idea of rats producing food. …

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