It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. After nationally prominent artist Hung Liu and her collaborator, printmaker David Salgado, agreed in 2018 to donate 55 of her works to the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, the plan was for her to come to Eugene for the opening reception, held last month, of an exhibition of the donated works and to give talks here about herself and her art.
But Liu died suddenly of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 7, 2021. Her unexpected death at the age of 73 gives the exhibition Remember This: Hung Liu at Trillium, now up at the JSMA, an extra piquancy.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the show is sprawling. This is not a collection of miniatures, but instead 55 large works — many are up to 60×60 inches, and the largest is more than 20 feet wide — that fill the Schnitzer’s expansive Barker Gallery and spill over into the Soreng Gallery of Chinese Art, where Liu’s painting blends seamlessly with classical Chinese art from the permanent collection. A couple more hang in the lobby, greeting visitors as they arrive at the museum.
Liu’s resume charts a turbulent but yeasty arts education. Born in China in 1948, she lived in Beijing and went to school with the children of political leaders until the Cultural Revolution sent her for “re-education” by living and working for years with peasant farmers. For a time she hosted a popular television program on painting. She studied mural painting in China’s artistically conservative Central Academy of Fine Arts, and in 1984 emigrated to the U.S. to study art at the University of California, San Diego.
There she worked with the late Allan Kaprow, a painter and theorist who had coined the term “happening” to describe large group performance events that drew national and world attention in the 1960s.
All this leads to a breathtaking body of work on display at the Schnitzer. Working with Salgado at his printing and publishing house, Trillium Graphics, Liu developed a process in which she layered historic photographs, often of ordinary Chinese people, onto large panels and then added painted backgrounds and small icons, all with allusions to classical Chinese art. She and Salgado, who died in 2018, created separate layers using poured plastic resins — reminiscent of everything from the surfboard art of Southern California to the découpage of the 1970s, but oh so much better — that give her work a rich, iridescent appeal with its use of gold leaf and deep red hues.
Liu’s subjects span almost every aspect of human endeavor. Her painted-over photos include the faces of “comfort women,” women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during war with China in the late 1930s; a photo of three Communist women facing a firing squad after their capture by the nationalist army; “Polly and Her Horses,” a picture of a 19th century Chinese woman named Polly Bemis sold into slavery in Idaho; and a Dust Bowl portrait of the American woman whose face, thanks to photographer Dorothea Lange, is famous as “Migrant Mother.”
In the mural-sized 2012 work “Apsaras,” Liu uses four large panels to commemorate the devastating earthquake that killed perhaps 100,000 people — the total will never be known — in Sichuan in 2008. Reading it as a narrative from left to right, you first encounter a young woman with a mask over her face and nose, evoking for a viewer in 2022 the world pandemic.
Liu was rightfully famous in the art world well before her death. Her art is currently being exhibited in three other cities around the U.S: Hung Liu; Portraits of Promised Lands is at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., through May 30; Hung Liu: Golden Gate is at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco through Aug. 7; and Remembering Artist Hung Liu is at the Oakland Museum of California through Oct. 31.
Remember This is a big show that spans decades of work. Go see it — and then go see it again, as there’s almost no chance you’ll be able to absorb more than a fraction of this powerful collection in one visit.
Remember This runs through Aug. 28 at the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Hours are 11 am to 8 pm Wednesday and 11 am to 5 pm Thursday through Sunday. Admission is $5, $3 seniors, free for UO students and children under 18. More info at JSMA.UOregon.edu/RememberThis.