In memoriam: the life and legacy of artist Hung Liu

Known+for+canvases+dripping+with+emotion+and+depth%2C+artist+Hung+Liu+gave+voice+to+those+who+have+been+forgotten%E2%80%94immigrants%2C+migrant+workers+and+laborers%E2%80%94and+made+their+stories+beautiful.+Through+Liu%E2%80%99s+eyes%2C+we+see+a+humble+shoemaker+woman+illuminated+as+the+subject+of+an+ethereal+composition.

Michelle Liu

Known for canvases dripping with emotion and depth, artist Hung Liu gave voice to those who have been forgotten—immigrants, migrant workers and laborers—and made their stories beautiful. Through Liu’s eyes, we see a humble shoemaker woman illuminated as the subject of an ethereal composition.

by Michelle Liu, Winged Post Co-Editor-in-Chief

Known for canvases dripping with emotion and depth, artist Hung Liu gave voice to those who have been forgotten—immigrants, migrant workers and laborers—and made their stories beautiful. A pillar of the Bay Area art scene, her paintings found homes at the de Young Museum and Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Although Liu died on Aug. 7 this year from pancreatic cancer at age 73, her legacy lives on within the vulnerable, human works that she created. Liu will not be forgotten.

 As a young woman living through the Chinese Cultural Revolution, fear of the Maoist government drove Liu to burn most of her treasured family photos. However, during her four years of manual labor for “re-education” in the countryside, Liu secretly captured photographs of the workers toiling next to her in the fields. These photos became her new family album, one that she drew from for the last thirty years of her painting practice. They serve as a reminder of the humanity still present through the suffering and desolation of those who have become invisible to society.    

Through Liu’s eyes, we see a humble shoemaker woman illuminated as the subject of an ethereal composition. Fluttering butterflies surround her in Liu’s 2012 work “Madame Shoemaker,” their wings melting into the dark crimson and ochre drips of the background. The delicately painted creatures recall the symbolism of butterflies in China: a representation of life’s beauty juxtaposed against life’s vulnerability. Captured with the striking drips of Liu’s signature ‘weeping realism’ style, to me these butterflies represent the transient moment between the metamorphosis of heavy reality into the lightness of spiritual freedom.  

Although life may deal a heavy hand of suffering to those who must bear it without a sound, Liu’s paintings remind us of a sublime force — a force which reveals that life is still beautiful.