Donald Munro

With ‘Scales of Time,’ Fresno Art Museum honors world-class artist with unique perspective on China

Here’s what Hung Liu, as an art student in Beijing in the 1970s navigating the complexities of the later part of China’s famous Cultural Revolution, was supposed to be painting:

Soldiers. Factory workers. Farmers. Peasants.

The idea was to celebrate the working class in a Socialist Realist style, depicting them as glorious foot soldiers leading the way to a communist utopia.

But Liu, now internationally acclaimed and recently named the Fresno Art Museum’s 2016 Council of 100 Distinguished Woman Artist, isn’t someone who easily takes no for an answer. She wanted to paint subjects that moved her, and she chafed at the rote lessons of her school and the narrow vision of what a Chinese artist should depict.

So in her free time, she would slip away from school to roam the rural outskirts of Beijing, her hands itching to quickly paint, in broad and impressionistic strokes, the everyday scenes she saw: a mud hut, an unused donkey cart, a distant mountain.

These weren’t exactly the kind of subjects that would foment discontent with the Communist Party. But during the Cultural Revolution – a time in which intellectuals of every stripe, from doctors and engineers to lawyers and teachers, were stripped of their privileges and “re-educated” with hard labor in the countryside – even veering a little off the prescribed course could be dangerous.

One day she painted a small white building. You can see why the composition of the scene intrigued her. The building’s angled roof sloped up, offering a dynamic visual tension in contrast to the grove of green trees just beyond. There was something idyllic, yet stark and intrusive, about the scene. But the subject matter wasn’t glorious at all. The building was a public toilet.

When she returned to her dormitory at school, she put up the small painting on the wall. One of her roommates, a woman nicknamed “Government,” confronted her. These little paintings Liu was doing – did they “sing great songs for the party?” Why was she painting them? Just what was her political status? And why would she want to paint a toilet?

From that point on, Liu realized she had to be more careful.

“I could not stop painting,” she tells me as we walk through her new exhibition, “Scales of History,” at the Fresno Art Museum. “But I had to hide them under my coat and then under my bed.”

While the art museum often focuses on shows with a strong connection to the central San Joaquin Valley, the Distinguished Woman Artist award – which dates back to 1988 and salutes the museum’s era as a noted feminist-art-embracing institution – honors a California artist who has been working at least 30 years. Liu lives in Oakland, where she is a professor emerita of art at Mills College.

Getting to see her work in Fresno, then, is an opportunity to get a perspective on a world-class artist whose work is welcomed in our country’s major museums.

Though she made hundreds of paintings, only 35 of them – faithfully kept by Liu’s mother for decades – survive, and all are on display. The exhibition for the first time brings together these small works, titled the “My Secret Freedom Series,” with her newer, much larger scale paintings, often with overt political meanings, made in her adopted home of the United States. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition.

“These are epic paintings, despite their size,” says Liu’s husband, Jeff Kelley, who devised the theme of the Fresno show, curated it and wrote a wonderful essay in the museum’s exhibition catalog. “Not because of what was included but because what was left out: propaganda, melodrama, hero worship, the party line. All that stuff that was supposed to be in official art of that time, it was left out.”

Persistence pays off

Listening to Liu and Kelley discuss (and banter-slash-bicker) about the exhibition as we walk through it makes me think of the familiarity and connection that long-married couples often attain together. Kelley, a noted curator of Chinese art who worked for a decade at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, met Liu when both were art students at the University of California at San Diego.

For years, Liu had pestered Chinese authorities for a passport so she could study abroad after being accepted to UCSD. It took four years. When Kelley started in the art department there, he kept hearing about how a place was being held for a Chinese student caught up in red tape. “Finally, in the last year I was there, they said, ‘Hung Liu’ is finally here. She was kind of a legend by the time I met her.”

After they married, she never had to worry about returning to China.

As she speaks, her manner is crisp, buoyant, friendly, no-nonsense. She’s had a lot of experience slipping through bureaucratic barriers when she wants to get somewhere, and she has a force of personality that gives you faith she can make just about anything happen if she puts her mind to it.

In many ways, Liu has had great timing in her life. Yes, at age 20, she had to endure four years of peasant labor in the earlier days of the Cultural Revolution. But that gave her a certain status afterward that helped her politically. (Kelley says she was a “fake peasant.”) By 1972, when she returned from the countryside, she was able to get into Beijing Teachers College, in what was called the Revolutionary Entertainment Department, to study art.

By the time she could be accused of breaking the rules herself, by making her small paintings, no one could quibble about her “class” credentials.

Her success in finally receiving a passport in 1984 to study in San Diego – which made her one of the first artists from China to study abroad – shows another of her qualities: persistence.

“You’re pretty good at working the system,” I tell her.

“Not really,” she says, smiling.

“She’s just stubborn,” her husband chimes in.

American acclaim

What followed for her in the United States has been a long and distinguished career. The Wall Street Journal called her “the greatest Chinese painter in the U.S.” Liu is a two-time recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in painting. Her works have been collected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others. She was recently commissioned by the U.S. National Portrait Gallery to do a painting of Meryl Streep. In the latter part of her career, she turned to making paintings based on historical photographs.

One of the great things about her new Fresno exhibition is the way you can flit back and forth between her earlier days as a student – absorbing the furtive freshness and raw vitality of a rural Beijing – with some of her much more politically pointed works.

One of the biggest and most impressive, titled “Modern Time,” is based on a banal photograph of a woman daydreaming in a conference room. On the wall behind her are four photographs that used to be found on the walls of schools and public buildings across China: the “four white guys” who helped birth the communist ideology. But Liu offers a subversive twist. She depicts Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in the style of Van Gogh, giving a post-Impressionist hint of snark to the scene.

China is a much different place today, of course, than in Liu’s formative years. Those idyllic rural Beijing scenes, for example, have been replaced by towering apartment blocks. Marx and Engels, et al., have probably been tucked away in a back cupboard somewhere.

There’s a much more freewheeling attitude toward art as well. It’s long past the time when the depiction of an everyday public toilet could get you criticized. Artists can get away with a lot more these days and often push boundaries in terms of various social taboos.

“The thing about China and the art world is that you can do almost anything you want,” Kelley says. “You can do things there that you couldn’t do here. But what you can’t do is directly challenge the authority of the Communist Party or desecrate the image of Mao. If you do any of those two things you’re in trouble.”

While some of Liu’s art – such as a large-scale painting in the Fresno show of starving prisoners in a Japanese camp, or of a haunting work based on a photograph taken in the 1930s in the San Joaquin Valley of destitute farmers during the Depression – would be fine to exhibit in China today, others wouldn’t be welcome. No criticism tolerated of the reaction to the Tiananmen Square uprising, for example, which Liu highlights in one work.

But Liu herself is welcome there. She returns often, and among her friends are most of the “hot” Chinese artists today, many of them who have made fortunes in the Chinese art investment market.

In fact, Kelley notes that Liu would likely have carved out a much more lucrative career if she hadn’t been so keen to get to the United States, which is quite the irony.

“If she had stayed there, we probably would have been rich beyond wonder,” he says.

Hung Liu: Scales of History