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A Woman Who Can Summon Ghosts

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"Summoning Ghosts, The Art of Hung Liu" is at the Oakland Museum through June.

HOST: Hung Liu is good at summoning ghosts -- from memory and history. She’s an Oakland artist born in China, and "Summoning Ghosts" is the title of a new retrospective of her work at the Oakland Museum of California. Since she arrived in the U.S in the late 1980s, Liu’s work has ranged from photorealism and surrealism to installation art. 
KQED’s Cy Musiker has this story about Liu and the sources of her inspiration.
CY MUSIKER: The ghosts Hung Liu summons are the people in her paintings and sculptures: sometimes family members, but also students and soldiers, peasants and prostitutes and others out of her past.
Rene de Guzman is chief curator at the Oakland Museum of California, and he put together Liu’s Oakland Museum show with this core theme in mind:
RENE de GUZMAN: which is to look at the relationship between memory and history.
MUSIKER: Personal and political history. Liu never knew her father, imprisoned because he fought against the Communist Revolution.
de GUZMAN: She’s had sort of a critical view of communist idealism and the realities that really happened. For instance, she lived through the Great Leap Forward, when China had this plan to industrialize itself.
MUSIKER: Which ended in economic disaster.  But that period also produced Liu’s first artwork.
de GUZMAN: This is the sketch that Hung did when she was 5 years old. For some reason her mother miraculously saved it -- well, maybe that's not so unusual, since all our mothers save this stuff. But what’s unusual about this is her personal history is tied to the history of China. And as a 5-year-old she is already documenting the history of China.
MUSIKER: It’s a very good sketch for a 5-year-old. And for Hung Liu, the sketch is a time machine, taking her back to October 1st, 1953.
HUNG LIU: Which is a Chinese National Day, like the 4th of July here. So I did the people in rally, people with little banners, Mao Zedong’s portraits, on the street.
MUSIKER: We’re at Hung Liu’s roomy studio in East Oakland. The sun streams in on a warm March afternoon. Liu is 65 and busier than ever. She’s working on four huge canvases on this day, each about 8 feet by 12 feet, lined up along one wall. They’re based on  photos chronicling her grandfather’s research on a religious mountain in Manchuria in the 1920s.
LIU: My grandfather taught biology, he loved flowers. So he’s holding flowers… a branch of flowers.
MUSIKER: Oh, look, are these the pictures that inspired those paintings?
LIU: Yes, this is him. See the hands? I remember his hands very big, also very soft, almost boneless, not like a strong man’s hand. Maybe because he was a scholar, he didn’t work in the field.
MUSIKER: And they look very puffy here, they look soft.
LIU: Exactly! That’s a boneless hand. That’s my grandfather.
MUSIKER: Liu often works from photos in a highly realistic style, so her grandfather, his walking stick and the monks he studied are vividly alive on the canvas. But Liu is no documentarian, and her paintings and sculptures often include surreal touches and layers of meaning.
Butterflies and birds dart across her canvases. And she often drips linseed oil and smears the image, to show how memory blurs history, as a tribute to an ancient style of Chinese painting, and as a kind of revenge to Socialist Realism -- those brightly colored glorifications of the working class.
LIU: For me it's fascinating, that you can be little unreasonable, illogical, and can turn things upside down inside out, and things could be a hundred years apart, but that’s art-making.
MUSIKER: Liu trained as a photographer and muralist in China. There the rules were brutally logical. Liu was attacked, for instance, for including an outhouse in an impressionist landscape.
LIU: There’s a party member, her nickname in my class is "Government." She said, 'How could you? What kind of conscious political stand you take. To do a public toilet. How could you?'"
MUSIKER: Liu recalls the message from that exchange was clear.
LIU: There’s no middle ground. If you’re apolitical, you’re in the enemy side. After that I have to be very careful. It didn’t stop me from doing it.
MUSIKER: But it intensified her desire to come to the U.S. The Oakland show includes that outhouse painting, and other early work Liu kept hidden. And there’s a series of richly decorated paintings based on early 20th century photos of Chinese prostitutes -- a series that embodies the show’s title, "Summoning Ghosts."
LIU: I feel their ghosts -- their spirit around. In China we believe if you don’t give them home, they will forever be homeless and hunting, always searching for a place to settle, those ghosts. So I felt in the spirit of calling them home. So my painting becomes a memorial site. 
MUSIKER: Curator Rene de Guzman says people attending Liu’s show will see a dormant greatness that’s barely been recognized until now.
Liu says she’s amazed by her success, since she came to the U.S. with just $20 in her pocket. And she says she’s just as proud of her work teaching art for two decades at Oakland’s Mills College. She retired last fall. Her grandfather and mother, both teachers, compared the job to that of a gardener planting fruit trees, a metaphor Liu thinks about at her students’ art shows.
LIU: When they have exhibitions and collections, I feel like I see my peach flowers, pear flowers, all over. I’m an artist, but also educator.
MUSIKER: "Summoning Ghosts, The Art of Hung Liu" continues at the Oakland Museum through June, before embarking on a two-year national tour.
The San Jose Museum of Art will mount a show of new work by Liu in June.
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