On View: August 27 – May 30, 2022
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has announced Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands, the first retrospective of the artist’s portraiture and the first major presentation of her work on the East Coast. Featuring more than 50 paintings, photographs and drawings, the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition will examine the powerful art of Hung Liu (b. 1948 in Changchun, China), from her earliest photographs and drawings made in the early 1970s to her recent large-scale paintings. Having lived through wars, political revolutions, exile and displacement, Liu presents a complex, multifaceted picture of an Asian Pacific American experience. This is the first time the Portrait Gallery will honor an Asian American woman with a solo exhibition.
Portraits of Promised Lands begins with portraits that Liu created as a field laborer during her agrarian “reeducation” in Maoist China (1968–1972), revealing the roots of her empathy for migrant workers and the compassion that her most recent portraits evoke—those inspired by Dorothea Lange’s documentary photographs of the Great Depression. The exhibition charts the evolution of Liu’s art as she immigrated to the United States in 1984, attended graduate school in California, where she studied with Moira Roth and Allan Kaprow, and rose to prominence as one of the most highly respected painters, both for her skill in representing individuals and for her commitment to human rights. “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands” will be on view from Aug. 27 to May 30, 2022, and is curated by Dorothy Moss, the National Portrait Gallery’s curator of painting and sculpture and coordinating curator for the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative.
“Liu’s work speaks powerfully to those seeking a better life in the United States and elsewhere,” Moss said. “After her 2019 exhibition was canceled in Beijing due to censorship, her work has taken on new meaning in its pursuit of freedom of self-expression and its focus on human rights, particularly the rights of women.”
Often drawing inspiration from photographs, Liu uses portraiture to elevate overlooked subjects. She portrays people living in poverty, child laborers and women whose lives have offered them few opportunities. She relies on the uniqueness of individuals to address universal themes of feminism, personal and collective memory, migration and immigration, and freedom of expression. “Portraits of Promised Lands” highlights Liu’s exploration of portraiture across media. The exhibition features some of her earliest black-and-white photographs and graphite drawings in addition to her large-scale paintings, assemblages and “shaped canvases,” for which she is best known.
The exhibition includes such highlights as Liu’s Where Is Mao? series, a group of 10 graphite-on-canvas drawings that illustrate an oftentimes faceless Mao Zedong meeting with various political leaders. Also on view will be several paintings from Liu’s “Mission Girls” series (2002–2003), portraying the resilience of young girls from Chinese orphanages, not only through their facial expressions and gestures but also through the artist’s choices of color, composition and grouping.
Portraits of Promised Lands, as previously mentioned, will also present a selection of Liu’s recent paintings, which are based on Lange’s Depression-era photographs. After visiting Lange’s archive, Liu felt compelled to portray some of the people whose faces she encountered there, including Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of Lange’s most iconic work Migrant Mother (1936). “They are all my relatives,” Liu said. “We don’t need a language, but we can communicate across time and space. There is something beyond that links us.”
Liu’s work is held in several museum collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She has twice received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in painting and has also received a Lifetime Achievement in Printmaking Award from the Southern Graphics Council International. Liu lives in Oakland, California, and is a professor emerita at Mills College, where she taught from 1990 to 2014.
Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands is part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story.” The exhibition will be accompanied by a richly illustrated catalog published by the National Portrait Gallery in association with Yale University Press. The book includes essays by scholars Nancy Lim, Lucy R. Lippard, Moss, Elizabeth Partridge and Philip Tinari; a chronology by Jeff Kelley; and reflections by artists Enrique Chagoya, Judy Chicago, Mel Chin, Yu Hong, Martin Mull, Amy Sherald, Stephanie Syjuco, Lava Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems and Liu Xiaodong.
Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands has been made possible through the generosity of an anonymous donor; Fred M. Levin, the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Nancy Livingston Levin and Ben and A. Jess Shenson; and the contributions of many other supporters. In addition, the project received federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative.
National Portrait Gallery
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the nation’s story.
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